Those who work with youth in the child welfare system say these are some of the most vulnerable people in Canadian society. Separated from their parents and placed under the care of the government or allied service agencies, they are more likely to end up homeless or in jail as adults. Many do not complete high school and very few go on to pursue postsecondary education.
Tuition is one of many barriers they face. However, an increasing number of universities in Canada – including all of Ontario’s universities – are now offering tuition waivers to students who were formerly under government care.
The first to do so was the University of Winnipeg, which began offering a tuition waiver for former youth in care in 2012. Twenty-five students took up the offer last academic year and 12 more this year, said Jennifer Rattray, U of Winnipeg’s associate vice-president of indigenous, government and community affairs. “Universities have really done a lot of work on access issues over the past few years, and this is another important step in helping as many people as possible access postsecondary education,” she said.
By far the biggest expansion in tuition aid for former Crown wards is in Ontario. This past June, the provincial government announced, in partnership with universities and colleges, that these students can have their tuition covered up to a maximum of $6,000 a year for four years. As well, eligible students will receive $500 monthly up to age 24 to help with living expenses; the monthly support previously stopped at 21.
The province expected about 850 students to qualify for the assistance. Half of the tuition waiver is covered by the province, while the other half is funded by the respective postsecondary institution.
“It’s a group that we’ve always supported and we will continue to support,” said Cheryl Regehr, provost and vice-president, academic, at the University of Toronto. “Every young person deserves access to education, no matter their personal circumstances,” she said, noting that U of T, like some other universities, has offered specific support for Crown wards for many years.
Vancouver Island University also launched a tuition waiver pilot project for students formerly in foster care in September. It is the first university in B.C. to offer such a program. The University of British Columbia recently approved a similar fee waiver, and the University of Victoria is considering implementing a similar program.
VIU president Ralph Nilson said seven eligible students signed up for the waiver this fall, adding he hopes to see more take advantage of the program in the coming years. According to the university, there are just over 900 youth in government care on Vancouver Island alone, the majority of whom (almost 64 percent) are aboriginal.
The VIU program is financed through a combination of existing scholarship funds and support from outside groups. “There’s been fantastic support from donors” for the program, said Dr. Nilson.