Thursday, February 15, 2007

Frozen Tuition: A Socialist Myth

The Myth

Increasing affordable access to education -- or "educare", as it's now hearalded by left-wing student advocacy groups -- is a noble endeavour. And to a large extent they're right: Young Canadians should not enter their 30s with the equivalent of two mortgages: one for the house and one for student loan debt.

When it comes to tuition freezes, however, it should be obvious by now: governments and students are being forced to choose between quality education and cheap degrees. (I mean 'cheap' in more than one sense.) So let's dispell one common myth about frozen fees.

According to reports out of Manitoba and Quebec, tuition freezes have failed to bring more children from low-income families to university. In both provinces, university officials are reporting that, while overall enrollment figures are up (as high as 40%) since their freezes came into effect, there has been no noticeable increase in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. None. (It should be noted: the universities are not fudging these numbers. Statistics Canada provides them with the data.) Middle-class and upper-middle class students are the ones taking advantage of the freezes, according to these reports -- not poor ones.

This is not to say that bringing more middle-class children to university is necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps we should look at it another way.

The Solution

Instead of pushing freezes as a socialist tool to lift up the lower classes, let's use them as a means of increasing the opportunities of those who most deserve it, those who can make best use of a university education -- regardless of their income.

Thus, as a learned friend told me this week, the solution to our crumbling universities may not be to raise tuition. This particular approach has failed miserably in Saskatchewan, where -- by all accounts -- NDP Premier Lorne Calvert's decision to lift the province's freeze has neither improved the quality of education markedly, nor stemmed the flow of students to Alberta and BC. And goodness knows, high tuition rates at the University of Calgary haven't stopped Maclean's from keeping it at the bottom of the university rankings.

Instead, let's raise entrance requirements to acceptable levels, allowing only the most qualified and dedicated students to attend, and allowing them to do so at reasonable rates of tuiton.

In other words, let's stop our universities from becoming glorified (?) high schools -- where everyone with a 60% average and a modest student loan can attend. This would reduce the number of 'casual' students, many of whom attend university simply for the piece of paper, and many of whom fail to earn even that. Community colleges and trades schools could shoulder the burden of increased enrollment, and the private sector could be leaned upon to provide financial support. And if students with low entrance grades -- let's say below 85 to 90% -- still want to attend university, they should have to pay an increased rate of tuition. If their grades improve while in university, they could 'earn' a lower rate of tuition in subsequent years. This is the equivalent of a built-in scholarship system for high-achievers, and the profits made from the differential fees program could be used to fund bursaries for low-income students.

For universities, this would decrease class sizes, increase the quality of classroom learning, and increase the overall value of degrees. It has the added bonus of encouraging our best and brightest high school students to stay in Manitoba, not to mention luring those from out-of-province. Maclean's might take notice and move Manitoba's schools up their list of top universities (entrance requirements factor prominently in their formula). In short, it would mark a return to the quality of education we enjoyed only a few decades ago, before tuition freezes turned our universities into Grade 13 and sent our finest minds elsewhere in search of better education.

To me, there's really only one choice here: if you want to keep tuition freezes in place, you have to increase entrance requirements.

The Politics

In Quebec, it's understandable that the Charest Liberals are reluctant to lift the tuition freeze -- young people in that province are among the most politically-engaged in the country, and they are among the most likely segment of society to vote for the PQ in an upcoming election. (The threat of separatism trumps poor universities any day.)

The same pressures simply do not exist in Manitoba. While the Opposition Tories have removed the "unfreeze tuition" policy from their platform, there's no way they would oppose NDP legislation to lift the cap. As for student pressure -- While lifting the freeze may anger Student Unions across the province, their ability to resist would be hampered in two ways. First, as unfortunate as it is, Manitoba youth are among the most politically disengaged in Canada. While thawing tuition may mobilize some SU cronies and left-wing activists, there's nowhere else for them to turn come election day. The NDP won't lose votes on this issue; like Harper with the Oil Patch and Income Trusts, Premier Doer can simply say to his base, "the guys on the other side of the aisle would do much worse." Second, students are far from unified when it comes to the tuition issue. Several hundred at the UofM have actually banded together in support of raising tuition fees for Engineering and Law.

Kudos to them. It's sad that the Manitoba government isn't siding with these students instead of listening to its socialist base. If it intends to keep the freeze in place, to spare students from the huge burden of debt and maintain affordable access to quality education, there's only one option left to save our universities: raise entrance requirements. Expecting more from our students doesn't have to mean demanding more from their wallets. Serious students -- the ones who most deserve to attend university -- would never disapprove of that.


whichwaysthegym said...

Good strategy, university has become grade 13. Even without entrance requirements, profs need to be more willing to fail students to send a message that they are not cut out for university.

DeepRedTory said...

Today's Winnipeg Free Press Editorial...

Tuition freeze luring the rich
Low-income enrolment stays static

THE tuition freeze hasn't lured more poor or working-class students to Manitoba colleges and universities, according to school officials and some new statistics.

Instead, the tuition freeze may be helping to boost the proportion of students from wealthy neighbourhoods who attend school.

That has university administrators looking for new ways lure students from poor families into labs and lecture halls, starting as early as elementary school. And they're renewing their calls on the province to stop tinkering with tuition rates that leave colleges and universities strapped for much-needed cash.

University of Manitoba vice-president academic Robert Kerr says his school's enrolment data show that only seven per cent of U of M students come from neighbourhoods dominated by low-income families. That number has remained flat since the tuition freeze began in 2000. Only the proportion of students from upper-middle-class neighbourhoods has increased.

"The tuition freeze really hasn't produced the effect that might have been hoped for," Kerr said.

It's difficult to cobble together accurate statistics on student incomes, but there's broad consensus among education officials that the U of M's conclusions are correct.

The school based its rough analysis on Statistics Canada census data that looked at the rates of unemployment, high school graduation and single-family households in small clusters of postal codes in Winnipeg.

Using that data, Statistics Canada assigned each cluster a socio-economic value and the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy (MCHP) at the U of M gathered those together to determine whether each neighbourhood in Winnipeg was a low-, middle- or high-income area. The U of M then slotted in its enrolment data to determine what kinds of neighbourhoods its students come from.

U of M staff caution that their preliminary analysis doesn't take into account the fact that students may live in a poorer postal code even though they're financially comfortable, or vice-versa.

The tuition freeze, heralded as a bold step to boost the accessibility and affordability of post-secondary education, did cause post-secondary enrolment to jump 37 per cent.

That means the absolute number of students from poor families has most certainly increased.

But the number of middle- and upper-class student increased slightly more, meaning universities are still bastions of the relatively well-to-do.

Sid Rogers, executive director of the Council on Post-Secondary Education (COPSE), agreed that the freeze has been fairly successful in maintaining affordability but it hasn't resulted in a rush of enrolments from low-income students. "We've not seen a huge shift," said Rogers, whose agency stickhandles post-secondary funding and programming issues for the provincial government. "It's not been in the range we had hoped for."

COPSE did its own analysis for all three Manitoba universities using MCHP's data and found that students from high-income neighbourhoods have flocked to university since the tuition freeze began. Those from low- and middle-income neighbourhoods didn't enrol in university at anywhere near the same rate.

Manitoba also has one of the lowest "conversion rates" in the country. That means fewer students make the leap from high school to college than in most provinces, even the ones with steep school fees.

New research suggests it's not money that keeps poor kids from going to university. Instead, a study released last week by Statistics Canada found that low-income students must grapple with a complicated collection of social and educational obstacles. That includes high school grades, reading test scores, whether parents went to university, whether friends are going and whether the student sees education as a wise investment.

Lorne Belmore, principal of Children of the Earth School in Winnipeg's North End, said those are exactly the challenges he sees in his predominantly aboriginal high school.

His students don't lack for money. They can get sponsored by their bands to attend university, and often government bursaries or grants go unused for a lack of candidates.

Instead, he said his students just can't see themselves on a college campus. That's why he's set up a transition program that brings first-year classes right to the Salter Street school. And Belmore is working on a new program to propel his students into the medical field by setting up internships with X-ray technicians and doctors as well as academic tutoring.

"These kids go to the doctor and it never even crosses their minds that that could be them," Belmore said. "We've got to get kids, even as young as elementary, thinking beyond their neighbourhood, beyond just junior high."

DeepRedTory said...

Yesterday's Globe and Mail Editorial...

Cut-rate tuition equals cut-rate education

At the University of Manitoba, there's a splendid brand-new building with a soaring, light-filled atrium for the engineering and computer students. The Premier likes to brag about it as a sign of Manitoba's impressive high-tech future. There's a building boom in Manitoba, to say nothing of Alberta, and engineering grads are in hot demand.

There's just one problem. After years of modest operating funding and provincially imposed tuition freezes, the university can barely keep the doors open. The computers in the brand-new building are ancient. Faculty salaries are uncompetitive, and the place is understaffed. Nearly half of the elective courses have been cancelled. Teaching assistants are so overloaded, they sometimes mark only every fifth answer on students' assignments. Some people even fear the engineering school could lose its professional accreditation. “It's literally crisis mode,” engineering professor James Blatz told the Winnipeg Free Press.

And so, as students across the land last week staged their protests against tuition hikes, the University of Manitoba's engineering students were discussing a voluntary tuition increase of 40 per cent.

Who benefits from low tuition? The standard answer is lower-income students, who will be shut out of higher education if fees go up. And who could doubt it? Ground-down students with horrendous debt loads are a beloved staple of the media. “High school students are dropping out because they can't even dream of going on to postsecondary education because it's too expensive,” said one protester last week.

So what's the truth? Do financial barriers keep deserving kids from going to university?

Statistics Canada researcher Marc Frenette set out to find the answer. And the short answer is no. In a fascinating study released this month, he analyzed the gap in university attendance between affluent and less affluent kids. It turns out the gap has very little to do with money. Instead, it is overwhelmingly explained by reading scores at age 15, high-school marks, and parental education. Kids with high reading scores, high grades, and highly educated parents are far more likely to go to university, even if their parents are dirt poor — and vice-versa.

“Financial constraints never play a larger role than student and parental characteristics,” the report says. That explains why so many immigrant kids make it through university, even as their well-educated dads are driving cabs.

These findings are stunningly good news. Essentially, they mean postsecondary education is accessible to almost anyone who's got the smarts. And they demolish the rationale for tuition freezes — so long as students in need can continue to get grants and loans.

After a decade of tuition freezes, most provinces are now cautiously scrambling to catch up. The average tuition for a Canadian university student this year is $4,347, up 3.2 per cent from last year and almost triple what it was in 1990-91. Only two provinces — Manitoba and Quebec — haven't dared to impose increases.

Here's another demolition of the argument that lower tuition equals greater access. Even though Quebec students pay the lowest fees in Canada ($1,916 on average), they have the lowest participation rate by far — less than 30 per cent for even the most affluent kids. Meantime, students in Nova Scotia pay the highest fees ($6,571), and also have the highest participation rates. The discrepancy is so great that a low-income kid from Atlantic Canada is more likely to attend university than a well-off kid from Quebec. Another fascinating indicator of social change: Women from low-income families are nearly as likely to go to university these days (37 per cent) as men from high-income families (42 per cent).

We like to think of a university education the way we think of health care — as a universal entitlement. The trouble is, everybody gets health care, but fewer than half of all our kids go to university. In return for their investment, they get a substantially higher lifetime income. Students who demand tuition freezes in the name of social justice have it exactly backward. Low tuition rates are simply subsidies for the more advantaged.

Nobody would argue that higher tuition alone can fatten up our starving universities. They desperately need more government investment, too. But Manitoba's engineering students are absolutely right. Cut-rate tuition is a rotten deal if all it buys you is a cut-rate education. Time to pay up, even though it hurts.

DeepRedTory said...

From Winnipeg Free Press, March 8, 2007:

Engineering students at University of Manitoba vote to hike own tuition

Engineering students at the University of Manitoba voted 64 per cent in favour Wednesday night of hiking their own tuition fees by a whopping 38 per cent.

Global TV Winnipeg said the increase was approved in a two-day referendum that left the student body divided on the issue.

“Taking a small, small hit right now will pay dividends in the future,” said student Phil Dom Pierre, who voted in favour of the hike.

Fed up with antique computers, cancelled classes and teachers too busy to grade assignments, most students were receptive when approached by faculty about the increase.

It will bring to an end a seven-year freeze on tuitions at the university.

But the extra $1,000 a year will mean student Pong Zhau will have to work more overtime to cover the extra debt.

“Most of us don’t have a steady income in the first place, so it’s not fair to have to pay more,” he said.

Regardless, both sides of the debate say they will now band together to stage a rally at the legislature at the end of the month asking for more provincial support for education.

The referendum still has to be approved by the board of governors and the province. The new rates would take effect next September. --Canadian Press

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