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Levelling the Playing Field

Undergraduate student aid ought to be based on need

This summer the presidents of 28 leading private universities and colleges in the United States, including such august institutions as Yale, Stanford, Notre Dame, MIT and the University of Chicago, recommitted their institutions to providing need-based financial assistance alone. They also endorsed a set of common standards for assessing a family’s ability to pay for undergraduate education. In so doing, they in effect created a common front against the practice of competitive bidding for students. Most important, they guaranteed that qualified students from the poorest of families could have access to the very best undergraduate education. This continuing commitment to need-based, as opposed to merit-based, aid is both courageous and admirably idealistic.

You might ask what the situation is in Ontario, and at the University of Toronto. In fact, we are proud that U of T has made a significant commitment to need-based financial student aid. In 1998 the university made a bold guarantee that no student would be prevented from coming to our university, or from finishing a degree, for want of financial assistance.

About three-quarters of the financial support we offer undergraduates, about $23 million annually, is awarded exclusively on the basis of need, and this figure has more than doubled since 1997-98. What’s more, the university gives entering students an assurance that they will not be met with unanticipated tuition hikes. I am proud to say that when there is a gap between a student’s assessed need and the maximum student loan allowed under the Ontario Student Aid Program (OSAP), U of T will cover the shortfall through a non-repayable grant. All of this is possible only because of the support of government and the continuing generosity of our friends – especially you, our alumni and alumnae.

Nevertheless, there are still inequities. On the one hand, it is very important that OSAP loans make it possible for even the poorest students to attend university. However, these same students then may graduate with quite large debts. Fortunately, their numbers are small. Still, it seems unfair that students from well-off families graduate debt-free while those whose families struggle financially graduate with OSAP debts as large as $28,000.

I should emphasize that the issue here is not tuition. Our tuitions in Ontario are modest when compared with expected income gains due to a university education, or with university tuitions in many other countries, including our neighbour to the south. Further, our tuition in undergraduate arts and science, corrected for inflation, has actually been decreasing over the past several years.

How do we level the playing field? I believe that the entire Ontario university system needs to move toward a predominantly need-based undergraduate financial-aid system. Further, to the extent that we retain merit-based aid, the size of the scholarship should be based on financial need. This is already the case for several programs including the province’s Aiming for the Top Scholarships and our own University of Toronto National Scholarship Program, including the Bank of Montreal scholarships. The current practice by some Ontario universities of “bidding” for the students with the top high school grades is, at best, wasteful of our limited resources for financial aid.

It would be difficult for any university in Ontario to make the transition to need-based aid unilaterally. It must happen system-wide. Students should attend the university that best meets their educational goals, rather than the one that satisfies their immediate financial exigencies. I call on my fellow Ontario university presidents to join me in emulating the 28 U.S. presidents who have taken a huge step toward levelling the playing field for all students.

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