Imposing a two per cent cap on Alberta post-secondary tuition fee increases and extending the grace period before student loans must be repaid are steps in the right direction, says a Red Deer student leader.
With more students than ever skipping meals and using food banks, Red Deer Polytechnic Students’ Association president Savannah Snow is glad the provincial UCP government is taking measures to lighten the financial load for cash-strapped learners.
“Affordability is always top of mind,” said Snow, who noted student food bank usage at RDP “skyrocketed” in 2022 so that organizers had to turn to administration to make it sustainable.
“We’ve also increased our free food offerings on campus,” said Snow, including having free breakfasts two mornings a week instead of one.
On Thursday, Advanced Education Minster Demetrios Nicolaides announced five measures his UCP government is taking to make post-secondary education more accessible and affordable in Alberta.
This includes giving low-income students who received the Alberta Student Grant an additional $225 per month, effective the beginning of the 2022-23 academic year. The retroactive money will be provided in the form of a lump sum payment.
“High inflation has made life more expensive for all Albertans, including post-secondary students. These new measures will help all students deal with higher costs during these challenging times,” said Nicolaides.
Post-secondary education tuition increases will be capped at two per cent starting in 2024-25.
While it would have been preferable if the tuition cap started this fall, the deferral allows institutions a year to plan ahead, said Snow. She also noted post-secondaries already submitted their requests for tuition increases for the 2023-24 year, which are now under consideration by the ministry.
Snow understands these realities, but remains concerned about possible big tuition increases for this fall, in light of the coming cap.
She noted RDP students have already had a rough three years, over which the compounded costs for all programs rose by 23 per cent.
To help make education in Alberta more affordable, the provincial government is also decreasing interest rates on student loan to the prime rate, from the prime rate plus one per cent.
And the student loan interest-free grace period was doubled to 12 months from the previous six.
Nicolaides said Alberta will be a leader in Canada by doubling this grace period, joining only P.E.I. in allowing student graduates a year to gain employment before having to begin repayments. He believes this will reduce some of the students stress.
Snow welcomed this change, saying it will mean students won’t have to take the first job that’s offered because their loan repayments are looming. Instead they can have more time to seek out job prospects that are more meaningful, or applicable to their studies.
Nicolaides also announced the income threshold for Alberta’s Repayment Assistance Plan was increased from $25,000 to $40,000, while the Alberta Student Grant monthly payments for low-income students will go up this term from $250 to $475.
The increase is will apply for the 2022-23 term. At a cost of $18 million, the grant top-up will be provided retroactively to Aug. 1, 2022 and students are to receive the payment as a lump sum.
Nicolaides said all of the changes will take effect automatically.
Changes to the interest rate and Repayment Assistance Plan will be ongoing after kicking in on July 1. While the student loan repayment grace period will also double on July 1, any borrowers who completed their studies on or after Dec. 1, 2022, will be eligible.
Matt Jones, Minister of Affordability and Utilities, called these new measures an important addition the provincial government’s Affordability Action Plan, “and underscore our commitment to students and to keeping Alberta affordable.”
Matt Yanish, vice-chair of the Council of Alberta University Students said changes were badly needed as, for the first time since the 1980s, more young people left Alberta to get an education last year than moved here.
“Nobody in a province as rich as Alberta should have to skip meals, and nobody should be denied an accessible education,” said Yanish.
New Democrat education critic Dave Eggen called these changes cynical electioneering, saying many student tuitions in Alberta have risen by 30 per cent or more since the UCP took office.