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In total, a little more than 384,000 full- and part-time students headed to institutions in Ontario and abroad applied for student aid this year, compared with 313,000 last year.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Applications from Ontario students for financial aid to attend college and university are up by a fifth this year compared to 2016, with applications from Indigenous and mature students showing even higher jumps. The numbers are the earliest indication of the impact that changes to the province's grant and loan system are having on the participation of underrepresented groups in higher education.

The Liberal government announced in 2016 that it would replace loans, grants and tax credits with a streamlined student-aid system that covers the cost of average tuition fees for students whose families earn less than $50,000 a year. Wealthier families are far more likely than lower-income families to have children in postsecondary education. The results of Ontario's changes are being closely watched by student groups, researchers and the government, who see the shift as an opportunity to find out the reasons for these differences in participation.

"Nobody was predicting the kind of increase that we have seen," Deputy Premier and Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development Deb Matthews said. "It's 50,000 more students applying for OSAP this year than last, which is an … encouraging result," she said.

"The initial numbers that were released are a great sign that this policy … is actually an effective way of overcoming barriers to postsecondary and giving students an opportunity to study," said Andrew Clubine, the president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, one of the student organizations that advocated for the changes.

Indigenous students had the most marked hike in applications, rising by 36 per cent to almost 7,500. Applications from mature students and from students headed to college both grew by 28 per cent, with a 20-per-cent increase in applications from those applying to university, numbers released to The Globe and Mail on Monday show.

"We've made a concerted effort to get out into communities and talk to people about what OSAP changes mean for Indigenous kids," Ms. Matthews said.

This year, OSAP is no longer counting federal aid for postsecondary studies for Indigenous students as part of students' income, she added.

"OSAP is over and above [federal support]," she said. "We've worked really hard with Indigenous communities to make sure that people understand they can have OSAP and [federal grants]."

In total, a little more than 384,000 full- and part-time students headed to institutions in Ontario and abroad applied for student aid this year, compared with 313,000 last year. The OSAP system accounted for approximately $1.1-billion of the $6.3-billion of Ontario's postsecondary spending in 2015.

Student groups said the next reform must address skyrocketing tuition for international students and fees for professional programs such as law and medicine. Tuition for international students rose more than 6 per cent last year across Canada, double the rate of domestic students, according to Statistics Canada.

"There are some folks missing from the equation," said Nour Alideeb, the chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario. "It is unfortunate that [international students] are not a part of this grant, but if we continue to work, we will get to a point where they will eventually be included."

Given Ontario's fiscal pressures, those changes are unlikely to happen in the near future.

While the government is attempting to increase participation by using the financial aid system as a lever, other policies, such as streaming in high-schools, are hampering access, educators say. Streaming Grade 9 students into applied courses often closes the door to university or college.

The government is grappling with how to address the impact of streaming on access to higher education, Ms. Matthews said.

"Our goal as a government is to make sure that everyone can achieve their full potential," she said. "If we are discouraging kids from doing that at a young age, that is a problem – and that does impact postsecondary participation."

Number that show how many OSAP applications were approved and how many students ultimately enrolled will be available later this fall.

Going back to school mid-career can bring particular financial considerations that younger students may not face. Money coach Melanie Buffel outlines some things to think about for current or future mature students.

The Canadian Press

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