On Wednesday afternoon

Students drowning in debt

Labour Day long weekend has come and gone, and students are now back in classes.

Labour Day long weekend has come and gone, and students are now back in classes. There’s a lot of excitement on BC’s post-secondary education campuses as students re-connect with friends, meet new instructors and settle back into campus life. As the BC NDP opposition critic for Advanced Education, I particularly enjoy this time of year as I travel the province speaking with students about the issues on top of their minds.

To date, no one has asked for help with their first mid-term. Rather, everyone wants to talk to me about student finances. Not surprisingly since students’ costs and how they are going to pay for them has become their number-one concern according to national studies. There’s tuition, books, fees, rent, utilities, transportation, mac ‘n cheese, and the occasional night out. More and more students also have to pay childcare and feed their kids.

In the last ten years under the Liberals, tuition in BC has doubled. At the same, BC continues to have the highest interest in Canada on student loans while being the only province that fails to offer students financial needs-based grants. The result at the end of a four year program is an average $27,000 debt, and this doesn’t include credit card debt or lines of credit with private lenders. Debt is not for the few either. Fifty four per cent of BC students have a student loan debt.

Recently, Sean Leslie from CKNW radio asked me if students struggling to make ends meet wasn’t a right of passage. Historically, that may have been the case, but the reality is that today’s young generations are much worse off than their parents. A recent article by Paul Kershaw in The Province discusses this very point and notes student debt is “markedly higher” for today’s generation. High usage rates at campus food banks is also a sign of increasing student poverty. Now compare that with campuses not even having a food bank thirty years ago.

Eighty per cent of students work either part or full-time to stay afloat, and say that their financial stresses are impacting their studies. Part of this stress reflects students’ purchasing power being considerably less than when their parents went to school. The average Canadian minimum wage in 1976 was $10.50 in today’s dollars. That’s more than today’s minimum wage in BC. Students have to shell out more to go to school, more for rent, more for food and are getting paid less than their parents. All this at a time when 80 per cent of jobs will require some level of post-secondary education by 2017.

Financial stress being the reality for the vast majority of students, many banks, schools and columnists do their best to advise students on how to survive the debt. As someone who continues to survive my $20,000 student debt, I would also like to add my advice. It’s easy. Go vote.

Tuition, loan interest rates, grants, minimum wage, rent controls –all of these are decided by government. That’s why Quebec students took to the streets, and that’s why young people need to show up at the polls. Every vote is counted, and when young people don’t show up to vote, their issues are ignored.

The BC NDP has put $100 million on the table for financial needs-based grants. Other parties will put forward their ideas for students too. Students can make sure they have their say on these proposals by showing up to a polling station on May 14, 2013.

So when you see me on BC’s campuses, tell me you plan to do something to make students’ lives better. Tell me you’re voting.

 

Michelle Mungall is the Nelson-Creston MLA. Her column is featured once a month in the Nelson Star

 

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