In 1999, the year that introduced MSN Messenger, Napster, Bluetooth and the Euro, a tuition fee freeze came into effect at Memorial University. This past summer, Memorial announced the end of that fee freeze, starting in the fall of 2022.
Initial signs of a thaw began in 2018 when the fee freeze ended for Canadian non-residents at the university. That was met with public criticism, particularly from student groups. Some of those opposing tuition fee increases insisted that the fee freeze was an effective public policy instrument for increasing Newfoundland and Labrador’s population – that lower university tuition fees were an incentive for individuals to settle in Newfoundland and Labrador, though no population data validated this argument.
Over the 22 years that Memorial’s tuition freeze has been in effect, many justifications for its continuation have been provided by its supporters, though there has been little study of the impact for the university, its students, and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which has subsidized it.
Following a tenfold influx of students from the nearby Maritime provinces enrolling at Memorial in the 1990s, my research group initiated a study in 2010 to ask students what was behind this enrolment spike. Many of those in the 2010 Maritime student cohort confirmed that they chose Memorial, in part, due to lower costs, along with program availability and institutional reputation. Ten years later, in the fall of 2020, a follow-up study was conducted with the 2010 Maritime student cohort to a) investigate their persistence and graduation rates, b) ascertain whether this cohort continued to reside in Newfoundland and Labrador, and c) identify why some students stayed while others had left.
The results of the 2020 follow-up study, recently published in the Canadian Journal for Educational Administration and Policy, are inconsistent with claims that frozen tuition fees for out-of-province domestic students have substantively contributed to Newfoundland’s population growth. Any contribution to the population growth would, in fact, appear to be minimal.
The analyses provided in the forthcoming paper show that 27 per cent of the students in our 2010 Maritime student cohort were no longer enrolled at Memorial one year after their initial enrolment. This retention rate was more than 10 per cent below the national average for students in undergraduate degree programs. The two-year persistence rate for our 2010 Maritime cohort was 61 per cent, which was about 20 per cent below the national average. According to Statistics Canada data on graduation rates from undergraduate programs, 40 per cent of full-time students graduate within four years, and by the sixth year, the graduation rate increases to 74 per cent. For our 2010 Maritime cohort, the four-year graduation rate was much lower at 23 per cent, however, their graduation rate reached the national average by year five. By the sixth year, the graduation rate was 45 per cent – far below the national average.
Despite stakeholder claims to the contrary, results of the follow-up study showed 78 per cent of the 2010 Maritime student cohort were no longer residing in Newfoundland 10 years later. Respondents who remained in the province did so for employment, education, health and wellbeing considerations, and/or to be near a spouse/partner or friends. Survey respondents who left the province frequently cited employment opportunities, cost of living, and living closer to friends as their motivation. Living closer to parents was also frequently noted.
These follow-up study findings should serve as a cautionary tale. Contrary to the often repeated claim that, as a result of lower, frozen tuition fees, out-of-province Canadian students were staying in Newfoundland and thus helping to provide a bulwark against population aging, the results of the follow-up study do not support such a notion. Because of attrition, nearly half of the students in the 2010 Maritime student cohort did not graduate from Memorial. Many of them returned home without completing a credential and compared to the national graduation rate, these students significantly underperformed.
If one of the primary aims of the former low tuition fee policy for out-of-province Canadians was to aid population growth, this study indicates that this objective failed. Considering the large drop-out rate, one must weigh these poor student outcomes against the costs borne by students and their families as well as the financial investment made by Memorial and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Dale Kirby is an associate professor of education at Memorial University.