A new report suggests tuition fees are becoming less affordable for many Canadians, forcing an increasing number of students to take on heavy debt loads.
The report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows that since 1990, average tuition and compulsory fees for undergraduates have risen by 6.2 per cent annually – three times the rate of inflation.
It now costs, on average, $6,186 a year to study at a Canadian university, and that doesn't include the cost of books or food or lodging.
The left-leaning think-tank adds that extrapolating from past growth and announced government intentions, that number will rise to $7,330 in four years.
The report also shows there is wide divergence in the cost of post-secondary education across the country.
It ranges from low-cost provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador ($2,861) and Quebec ($3,278), to high-cost jurisdictions like Ontario ($7,513) and Alberta ($7,061).
In four years, tuition for undergraduates will vary from a low of $2,893 in Newfoundland to a high of $9,231 in Ontario.
For Quebec, the report shows fees would have gone up to $4,472 if the recently defeated Liberal government's controversial proposals for increases were adopted. That would move the province from the second least expensive to third, behind Manitoba and Newfoundland.
The proposed fee hikes triggered massive protests during the spring, including class cancellations, but are now in question with the election of a Parti Québécois minority government.
Using what the CCPA calls its "cost of learning" index, which measures increases in tuition against the rise of income for the average family, the group says university education is most affordable in Newfoundland and Quebec, and least affordable in Nova Scotia and Ontario.
Co-author Erika Shaker said the intent of the paper was to track what provincial governments are doing to make higher education more affordable for families of modest means.
The findings, she said, show that most provinces have opted not to keep costs down, but rather turn to schemes to offer students loans on favourable terms, or easy repayment options.
The problem with that approach, Ms. Shaker said, is that 60 per cent of undergraduate students go into the working world with an average debt of $27,000, and that is likely larger if private debt is included.
"Yes university enrolment is increasing and that is frequently used as an argument to say people can bear the costs," she said.
"But students are graduating with debt and that has a lasting impact on how they can start their lives."
According to Statistics Canada, about half of youth from families with incomes in the top 25 percentile attend university by age 19, compared to less than a third for those from families in the bottom quartile.
Ms. Shaker says young Canadians are constantly being warned they must get a university education to have a chance at good jobs, but many provincial governments are off-loading more of the cost of university to families and students.
For instance, the proportion of provincial support as a percentage of total university expenditures has declined from 84 per cent to 58 per cent between 1979 and 2009, while tuition has increased from 12 per cent to 35 per cent in that time, the report states.
Add stagnant incomes and soaring household debt to the mix and "we're looking to graduate a generation that starts out on very shaky ground," said Ms. Shaker.
She added that the high cost of post-secondary education is also putting stress on families, with some having to take out second mortgages or delay retirement to pay for their children's tuition.