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Students walk across the University of Waterloo campus on Aug. 29, 2015.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Federal spending on postsecondary financial aid has primarily benefited higher-income families over the past decade and done little to improve the affordability of college and university for the lowest earners, says a report released Thursday from the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

The report suggests the accessibility of postsecondary education is polarizing, with students from the wealthiest backgrounds receiving family help from well-funded Registered Education Savings Plans and another group of students graduating with debt loads that are higher than ever.

The 64-page report reveals that a third of government grants received by families who have an RESP go to those with a household income of $125,000 or above. And over the past decade, the likelihood that a high-net-worth family will establish an RESP has grown by 6 per cent, the report estimates.

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"These types of mechanisms are always going to benefit those people who have extra income and pay attention to things like savings plans and education tax credits," said Fiona Deller, an executive director at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, a think tank of the Ontario government. Ms. Deller has done research on how to increase postsecondary attendance rates for low-income students.

She said helping families at all income levels may require other types of programs, rather than RESPs or tax credits. More of the federal government's financial aid has been delivered through those two mechanisms, Thursday's report says. Both programs primarily help students from the two highest-income brackets.

"Current programs are about trying to expand [saving] to low-income families," she said. "I'm not sure that's the best way of going about it. We should not rely on that mechanism to encourage low-income students and their families to save; we should have other mechanisms available to them."

Over a 20-year period, richer families have pulled far ahead of other groups in the amount they have accumulated inside RESPs. While in 1999, wealthy families had saved about $10,000 more than poor ones, in 2012, that gap had grown to $23,000, according to the report.

Student groups have long argued that one way to help students from lower-income families is to end tax credits in favour of providing more grants and loans at the beginning of a school term. It's a change that the federal government adopted in its last budget and that Ontario and New Brunswick are also implementing.

Thursday's report says that almost 38 per cent of aid currently delivered through tax credits goes to the very top earners.

"The move toward grants that are targeted to those students who need it is the very best way to promote access for Canadians," said Michael McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.

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Mr. McDonald suggested that the government could also move to automatically establish RESP accounts when a child is born. That would ensure that low-income families receive a $2,000 grant they can access even if they are not able to save any money.

None of these actions or proposals will address increasing debt loads, other student groups said. Postsecondary fees have exceeded inflation by an average rate of 1.7 per cent a year over the past 10 years. The effect of those hikes has also had an unequal impact, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Fewer students overall have student debt, the report finds, but "the percentage of recent graduates with large amounts of debt is growing."

"We are seeing individual debt levels skyrocket because it's coming from those individuals that are low income, first generation, indigenous," said Bilan Arte, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students. Rising tuition fees need to end to reduce debt loads, she said.

Total federal spending on postsecondary education is projected to increase to $15.7-billion within five years, the report says, with about 60 per cent of the money going to loans, grants, scholarships and the RESP program, and the rest to research programs. Since 2004, federal spending on postsecondary education has increased by $4-billion.

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