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Ottawa enhances student aid

Canada Student Loans Program expects to dole out over $500 million in new grants

BY NICK TAYLOR-VAISEY | SEP 08 2009

As the student unemployment rate rises in Canada, so too does the number of student loan applications. Some students didn’t even wait until they were enrolled in the fall semester to ask for financial help.

“They can’t even make rent for the May to August period, so they are knocking on our door” before the start of the fall term, said Shelley Clayton, director of financial aid at the University of New Brunswick and a past president of the Canadian Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Ms. Clayton, who has worked in student financial aid circles for 11 years, said this has been an unusual summer for UNB. She said that although student demand for financial assistance has grown this year, the school’s ability to provide bursaries has not. And because the summer job market has dried up for many students, they are forced to incur debt by taking out student loans.

Illustrating the tough times, Canadian Federation of Students national chairperson Katherine Giroux-Bougard noted that at Ryerson University, the student union advertised five full-time summer positions and received over 1,000 applications – an amount that she says is “basically unheard of.”

“Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for students. I think students are doing their best to find summer work, but they’re often the most vulnerable in the job market,” she said.

Barbara Glover, director of the Canada Student Loans Program, said she understands that some students are worried about their financial situation. However, improvements in federal financial assistance will help those struggling to pay for their education, she said.

Among the new measures is a national system of grants for students that will serve low- and middle-income families, part-time students, students with dependants, and students with permanent disabilities. Ms. Glover said that she expects 245,000 grants to be disbursed – about 100,000 more than the previous grant system – totaling more than $500 million.

She stressed that there is no cap on the number of grants that will be approved, and every student who qualifies for the Canada Student Grant Program will receive non-repayable assistance. She also emphasized that when students apply for loans, they are automatically assessed for their eligibility to receive a grant.

The Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, the precursor to the new grant program, is winding down this year. There are transition grants available for Millennium scholars that will allow those students to “continue to receive the same level of grant funding for the remainder of their current postsecondary program,” said Ms. Glover.

Both the Canadian Federation of Students and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations said more could be done to help students fund their education, but they also applauded the new grants as a step in the right direction.

Ms. Glover responded that the CSLP is just one of several resources for Canadian students. “The array of programs and support that exist in Canada does a very good job of removing financial barriers to access… and the enhancements that are in place go a long way to remove financial barriers for students in Canada,” she said, while conceding that financial barriers do still discourage some potential students.

On Aug. 1, a number of changes were made to federal student financial assistance.  A new repayment assistance plan took effect that mandates that borrowers will make it easier for student loan borrowers to manage their debt by paying back what they can reasonably afford. Under the plan, monthly payments are based on family income and family size, and will be limited to less than 20 per cent of a borrower’s income.

“[Students] should know that there is a lot of flexibility to respond to changing circumstances,” Ms. Glover said.

Last year, there was an increase of four percent in student-loan applications, which Ms. Glover attributed largely to the deteriorating economy. Numbers for this year won’t be available until November.

More information about the new measures introduced by the Canada Student Loans Program can be found at canlearn.ca.

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