Connor Sullivan had his sights set on the University of British Columbia’s conservation biology program back in 11th grade. But after doing the math, he quickly realized his dream wasn’t quite adding up.
“The living costs were ridiculous, I couldn’t even really think about it as a possibility for me without a full-ride scholarship or I would probably be out upwards of $100,000,” says Mr. Sullivan, who was living in the Greater Toronto Area in 2019 when he began applying to postsecondary schools.
The rising cost of living is not only forcing students such as Mr. Sullivan to take on more debt and tighten their budgets, but often forgo their dream schools entirely. In Mr. Sullivan’s case, it was a question of, “Am I going to be in too much debt coming out? Is it actually worth that degree? Or is getting a less, let’s say, valuable degree actually better in the long run to just get into the work force?”
Though Mr. Sullivan’s parents weren’t in a position to support him financially, their high income bracket barred him from access to the Ontario Student Assistance Program. “I was very much in this grey zone,” says Mr. Sullivan, who also rejected his second pick – the University of Guelph – because of high rent and tuition.
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Instead, he opted for a college-to-university bridging program in conservation biology at Fleming College in Peterborough, Ont., which he was able to start online while living at home.
Before bridging into Trent University in Peterborough, Mr. Sullivan took a gap year to save up. He worked as a ski instructor and bike mechanic, making an average of $32 an hour, and took out a Toronto-Dominion Bank student line of credit of roughly $15,000 ahead of starting school in the fall of 2022.
Though he now spends $650 a month splitting a four-bedroom house in Peterborough and pays roughly $7,800 a school year in tuition costs at Trent, in Guelph, Mr. Sullivan would’ve faced an average rent of $2,405, according to April, 2023, figures from the website Rentals.ca. In Vancouver, the rent would’ve climbed to $2,787, according to a May report from Rentals.ca, though residence rates are below market rents, according to a UBC spokesperson.
As the Bank of Canada has raised interest rates from 0.25 per cent to 4.5 per cent since March, 2022, students have been among those hit hardest by soaring cost of living expenses, rents and grocery prices, with postsecondary institutions seeing a rise in students accessing campus food banks, according to a report from the Canadian Federation of Students.
“Everybody will say, well, we’re all suffering, too, so why should we care about students necessarily? It’s expensive for everybody,” says Peter McInnis, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. “And it is, but this is generational – I can weather the cost of things more easily because I’m not a student anymore, but if you’re a student, that’s gonna affect you for decades.”
In Oakville, Ont., Katya Bibik surprised herself by choosing nearby Guelph over schools she’d considered as her top picks, including UBC and the University of Ottawa. “When it came to my top options, I had to make sure that it was somehow still closer to home because of the costs,” says Ms. Bibik, who just finished her first year in neuroscience at Guelph.
By combining savings from a summer job, student loans and help from her parents, Ms. Bibik was able to live in residence throughout her first year, getting a taste of the traditional university experience before moving back home in early spring.
Living with parents is an obvious and increasingly significant way to cut costs, with students in Vancouver and Toronto able to save around $22,000 a school year, and around $9,300 in cities such as Edmonton (based on rent for an eight-month school year using rents from Rentals.ca).
Others are looking to cut costs by prioritizing programs with placement opportunities that can help them offset living costs. In hopes of minimizing debt, 12th-grade student Anish Neethiganesh searched for co-op program opportunities when applying to his top schools – the University of Ottawa and the University of Waterloo – even though his parents plan to cover roughly 50 per cent of his costs.
“For both schools, the co-op is very good – it would help us pay off the tuition to a pretty good degree, I think even more than 50 per cent,” says Mr. Neethiganesh, who applied to Waterloo’s prestigious engineering management program, but has lately found himself leaning toward computer science in Ottawa. “Waterloo does have substantially higher fees.”
While Mr. Neethiganesh finds Waterloo’s status in the job market compelling, greater affordability and more flexible housing options in Ottawa are swaying him in the other direction. “Ottawa was a wild card for me – it’s quite an underdog candidate, it’s not in the public eye as much,” he says.
But after factoring in cost of living and housing options, Ottawa had the upper hand. “It seems to just have better amenities for more reasonable prices. In Waterloo, you just end up paying more for slightly smaller spaces and less flexibility. Ottawa has a lot of new buildings and new stuff coming out,” Mr. Neethiganesh says.
Though Mr. Sullivan’s program kept him closer to home, he also chose programs with co-op opportunities. But while he was able to mitigate the mind-boggling costs of living in Vancouver by opting for Trent, residing on campus set him back $8,900 for the 2022-23 school year, while rising interest rates have made life in Peterborough less affordable overall.
“I have been working through a full-time schedule to afford tuition – rent has increased drastically in Peterborough and food costs are going up,” Mr. Sullivan says. In his monthly budget, $200 goes toward gas and car expenses, $150 for groceries and $650 to rent off campus, where he moved after the spring semester, all while making $20 an hour at an auto body shop.
For students who want to make their dream school work no matter the price tag, financial planners recommend doing due diligence long before applying to university and understanding different types of debt. “Yes, there are student loans and scholarships, but if you try to tap into personal loans, that’s where it could get a bit tricky,” says Angela Iermieri, a financial planner at Desjardins.
If debt awaits after graduation, as it does for roughly 50 per cent of Canadians, according to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, Ms. Iermieri recommends using the 50-20-30 rule to balance expenses after graduation. “Fifty per cent of your income should be for your basic expenses, like your rent, hydro, phone; 20 per cent should be for your financial goals, your debt repayment, savings and emergency fund; and then 30 per cent for clothing, meals, leisure,” she says.
Soaring rents mean living with roommates can cost $1,000 or more per person
But when choosing a school in an expensive city, students must also be prepared for sacrifices beyond debt. “I have multiple jobs ongoing at any point in the semester. I work 20 hours a week and that really takes a toll on you,” says Jasmin Jeong, who moved from Edmonton to enroll in the University of Toronto’s prestigious life sciences program after rejecting her hometown school, the University of Alberta.
With parents who can only provide limited support, Ms. Jeong takes on the bulk of tuition fees, rent and other expenses with help from Alberta’s student grants, which came out to about $20,000 but covered little more than first-year costs.
“Throughout the semester, I’m not really seeing my friends much – I’m taking a full-time course load and working,” says Ms. Jeong, who pays $1,200 a month for a 50-square-foot makeshift bedroom with no door in a shared apartment. When she moves out at the end of the summer, she expects to dish out $1,600 a month for a one-bedroom unit on the ground floor of a midtown Toronto house.
Despite the sacrifices, and expecting to graduate with “a lot” of debt, Ms. Jeong doesn’t regret her decision. “I would probably choose it again. I have a lot of great opportunities here and it opens a lot of doors for graduate school,” says Ms. Jeong, who wants to get into U of T’s graduate life sciences research program.
Still, for many students, the name recognition and program ranking take a back seat to affordability. “I think ultimately this was the right decision,” Mr. Sullivan says of choosing Trent. “Maybe I might wonder what life would’ve been if I had [chosen] the other school and had a fancier piece of paper at the end of it and if that would’ve opened more doors, but until you go to university and spend that $80,000 to $90,000, you just won’t know.”