Jackie Pichette — OSAP’s transformation: Just the ticket?

Without the money for a trip around the world, would you expect to go?

Without the expectation of taking the trip, would you bother purchasing a guide book, packing your bags or booking flights?

It’s a crude analogy, but consider the parallels for high school students and postsecondary education. If students don’t believe they have the funds for a university education, should they expect to go? Without the expectation of attending university, what incentive do students have to plan a path, set academic goals for themselves or apply to institutions?

In Ontario, where the sticker price for university undergraduate tuition is the highest in Canada, it’s not surprising that many students don’t expect to see themselves on campus. Research suggests that without this expectation, students are not only less likely to apply, they’re less likely to perform well academically in high school.

Now, returning to the trip analogy for a moment, imagine that someone was offering to pay your way.

Ontario boasts one of the most generous financial-aid programs in the country. With the recent bundling of existing grants into a single, upfront Ontario Student Grant, average college and university tuition is now free for eligible low-income Ontario students and continues to be heavily discounted for others. All told, despite the sticker shock, the actual net price of tuition in Ontario is relatively low.

So why aren’t more students packing their bags and banking on a university degree? Fact is, many Ontarians are unaware of the net price of tuition and grossly overestimate the costs of attending postsecondary education, especially those from low-income families.

The results of a recent survey we conducted with Academica Group support this notion that students are missing the bigger (“net”) picture; nearly 30% of surveyed Ontario university students said they did not know they were eligible for government support. Bear in mind, this is coming from students who decided to attend university and found the means. I suspect if we surveyed those who decided against university, we’d find an even higher percentage who are unaware of the government support available to them.

In an effort to try and address this and relay actual costs, Ontario also announced a plan to implement net-tuition billing. The move will provide students in Ontario with a cost summary (tuition less financial aid) before they enroll. HEQCO recently looked at other jurisdictions offering a net-tuition bill and found that while the administrative challenges associated with process are daunting, the potential rewards (in the form of increased student access) are great.

It’s an ambitious plan and given the issue wasn’t one of generosity, the question that remains is: Will the changes correct skewed perceptions of affordability? The answer will depend on how well the changes are coordinated (with and across institutions) and communicated.

We at HEQCO will be doing what we can to measure and understand the effects of OSAP’s transformation. We’ll be surveying both students and parents about their perceptions of the program, their spending expectations and plans for the future.

Essentially, we are eager to see what happens if and when students perceive the ticket is paid for.

Jackie Pichette is a senior researcher at HEQCO.

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