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Vancouver Island University student Sherry McCarthy, a member of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht band, hopes to use her business education to help First Nations better manage their operations and agencies.

A business class with students from a mix of economic and racial backgrounds almost guarantees that wide-ranging ideas will emerge. But ensuring that future business professionals represent all segments of the population carries a hefty price tag.

According to Statistics Canada, the most expensive graduate level programs in 2014-15 remained the executive MBA, with average tuition fees of almost $40,000, with the regular MBA at $27,173, both surpassing tuition for dentistry, medicine or law.

So, how are Canadian university business faculties accommodating students with high aims who don't have deep pockets?

Greg Fleet, assistant dean at the University of New Brunswick's faculty of business in Saint John, agrees that business schools need to step up efforts to ensure that a cross-section of students are being groomed as future chief executive officers and policy makers.

"It's an interesting question. How do we go about it?" asks Dr. Fleet.

UNB staff have been visiting local high schools to recruit students for the business faculty. One advantage, Dr. Fleet has noted, is that high-school counsellors know their students' backgrounds and needs, and are keen to find ways to get disadvantaged students into university.

The UNB's business school has 25 faculty who teach roughly 500 undergrads and another 100 students in its MBA program. The smaller size means that professors get to know students and, like the local high schools, can identify and support underprivileged students.

"The other reality for our school, Saint John is a working class town," Dr. Fleet says. So, within the catchment area, there's a greater degree of lower-income households than other regions. Students from upper- and middle-class families often leave Saint John to study elsewhere, "because they can," Dr. Fleet says.

About 50 per cent of the school's first-year students are in the first generation of their family to attend university. "An amazing number compared to other parts of Canada, I'm sure," Dr. Fleet says.

At Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, about 37 per cent of the 400 undergraduate students are first generation learners, says David Richards, assistant dean in the faculty of business administration.

To support first-generation, recent immigrant, as well as aboriginal students, the Thunder Bay university focuses on support services, such as an access program and supplementary math/business-writing classes for business students.

As well, first- and second-year business classes don't exceed 60 students. "It's very easy in smaller classes to identify students who are falling behind. We bring them up to standards," says Bahram Dadgostar, dean of Lakehead's business administration faculty. "We are known as a value-added university where we accommodate students."

At Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C., the president believes that it's crucial that classrooms represent society as a whole.

"Our population is made up of diverse groups so it's extremely important that all segments are given the chance to succeed," says Ralph Nilson.

VIU prides itself on the support it offers to disadvantaged students who are serious about their studies.

"We work hard externally to find ways and means so that everybody can come to school. We just don't service the elite," Dr. Nilson says.

VIU remains B.C.'s leading school for waiving tuition for adult students no longer in provincial foster care. For 2015, 43 of about 17,000 students got free tuition; five of those 43 students are in business programs, which have 1,385 students in the faculty of management, 660 in the bachelor of business program and 295 in the MBA program, Dr. Nilson says.

VIU has also formed a partnership with the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business to offer the Ch'Nook program, which since 2002 has worked to increase First Nations' participation in postsecondary business studies.

In 2008, Sherry McCarthy became a VIU student, when she started the adult basic education program, which in 2008 became a free course in British Columbia.

Prior to that, Ms. McCarthy, 38, a member of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht band and the mother of three daughters, was a care-aid worker for seven years, sometimes holding three gruelling jobs at once. But, she couldn't make ends meet so she left Vancouver and returned to her home town of Nanaimo to attend VIU where First Nations students are strongly supported.

"My number one goal is to break the cycle of poverty," Ms. McCarthy said. "VIU is a good school with much more reasonable tuition fees than expensive places like UBC or SFU, where you don't get better education for the extra money it costs to attend and live."

By 2013, Ms. McCarthy had earned a bachelor of business administration degree. She was also the indigenous student representative.

In 2014, she started the MBA program at VIU, the same year being appointed to VIU's board of governors as well as being chairperson of VIU's Students' Union and vice-president of the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre.

"I took the MBA program specifically because I want to employ the business knowledge in helping better manage First Nations' operations and agencies, and to help articulate that it is a lack of self-government and improper funding that is holding back First Nations people in B.C., rather than the nonsense stereotypes you hear all too often from right-wing politicians," Ms. McCarthy said.

She plans to finish her degree in December.

"Politicians are fond of saying people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. In that analogy, education is the boots. The analogy assumes you already have the boots."

Now, seven years into her business career, Ms. McCarthy has funded her boots with grants and student loans, today owing about $50,000.

As a First Nations' student, she also qualifies for funding from the postsecondary student support program, but resources are so limited that students who qualify for funding are often passed over.

At the University of Regina, the Hill School of Business had 34 First Nations students in 2014 and 37 in 2015. And the business program at Regina's First Nations University has 69 First Nations students for 2015.

"When you look in our classes, you see the diverse makeup, that the students come from many walks of life, and you see how it creates a richer dialogue," says Andrew Gaudes, dean of the faculty of business administration at the University of Regina.

A point of pride is the business school's co-op program, where 230 of the faculty's students spend three terms working. In 2013, 837 University of Regina students earned $9.7-million during work terms, which works out to about $11,600 a student.

As well, the Hill School of Business hands out 63 academic, merit or needs-based awards each year. "There are lots of opportunities to find a niche, respecting your background," Dr. Gaudes says of Hill's 1,450 undergrad students and 250 graduate students.

All universities have scholarship and bursary programs which vary widely in available funding. High-profile schools such as Queen's University or McGill University have robust war chests thanks to rich endowments and dedicated fundraising.

Award money is usually handled by the university's admission office and is governed by the broader institutional practices, says Deanne Saunders, director of academic services at the University of Toronto's Rotman Commerce.

"The University of Toronto has policies ensuring access to study in terms of financial resources," says Ms. Saunders.

At Rotman alone, there are scholarships for lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered students, women in business as well as other speciality areas.

The University of Toronto is unique among Canadian universities, in that it assures financial support for students. Of the 2,200 students in Rotman's four-year bachelor of commerce program, Ms. Saunders couldn't confirm whether First Nations students were participating because students have to self-report and the data is not tracked at the divisional level.

Another Ontario university, Lakehead, was able to confirm that almost 7 per cent of its undergrad business students are First Nations.

VIU has about 2,200 First Nations students, with 17 studying business. "We're seeing very strong outcomes from the students," Dr. Nilson says. "We've got programs for the best and brightest. Our school is the antithesis of wealthy students."

Despite efforts to accommodate all students, and demonstrated by Ms. McCarthy's experience, concerns about student debt, and pleas for lower or even free tuition, never disappear.

Canadian full-time students in undergraduate programs paid about 3.3 per cent more in tuition fees for the 2014-15 academic year than the previous year. On average, undergraduate students paid $5,959 in tuition fees in 2014-15 compared with $5,767 a year earlier, says Statistics Canada.

Meanwhile German universities have been tuition-free since October of 2014. Even foreign students don't pay tuition. The country of 82.7 million people scrapped tuition so that young people who don't come from an academic family get a chance at higher education.

Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway provide free higher education, too.

In France, public universities have low tuition fees while elite institutions determine student tuition based on parents' incomes. Children of unemployed parents can study free.