StudentsNS pushes ‘up-front needs-based grants,’ for students

We do have a really robust financial assistance program in this province, Carol Lowthers, executive director of student assistance, told the legislature’s human resources committee.

With our loan forgiveness program, if you meet the eligibility criteria, which is basically if you graduate, we’re going to write 100 per cent of your Nova Scotia assistance, your Nova Scotia loan, off. That’s a great deal.

Clancy McDaniel, executive director of StudentsNS, said students can find themselves in dire straits from escalating tuitions and rents while trying to complete a degree to qualify for the great deal of assistance forgiveness.

We are always going to push as an organization for as much up-front needs-based grants that students don’t have to pay back in the long run, McDaniel said of the not-for-profit advocacy group that represents 20,000 Nova Scotia post-secondary students.

If you look at other jurisdictions that don’t have any sort of loan forgiveness or loan relief, the fact that it is evenly applied to all folks who graduate from Nova Scotia universities is a good thing.

Clancy McDaniel, executive director of Students Nova Scotia, said students often need an up-front financial boost while struggling with escalating in-term costs. – Contributed

She said that degree cost her somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000, financed primarily by Canada and Nova Scotia student loans. McDaniel owes some $27,000 in Canada student loans, having had nearly $9,000 forgiven from the and having been awarded both Canada and Nova Scotia student grants.

They max you out on the grants first, which is a good thing because that’s all non-repayable, then if you need to extend beyond the grants, that’s when they go into the loan portion, McDaniel said, adding that a student most in need can receive a maximum of about $17,000 in assistance from the federal and provincial governments for a 34-week education program.

It provides needs-based financial assistance to eligible Nova Scotia residents who would be unable or unlikely to pursue post-secondary education due to insufficient resources, Montgomerie said.

Since the province’s program was pegged in a 2010 report as one of the country’s weakest, Montgomerie said the province’s annual investment in Nova Scotia students has increased by $30 million.

Claudia Chender of the NDP asked what the Advanced Education Department and the provincial government could do about prohibitive housing costs that are forcing post-secondary students to to abandon their studies. – Eric Wynne

The focus on each of the new investments has been on reducing student debt load and making it more attractive for them to stay here since we know that young people who study here are more likely to stay here, Montgomerie said.

He said the province has increased forgiveness from four years of study to five and removed the minimum debt threshold to forgive 100 per cent of the provincial portion of the loan

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Because of loan forgiveness, over 9,000 students have graduated with a combined total of $66 million less in student debt, Montgomerie said.

Even using the 2017 numbers, roughly one in five students was getting the maximum amount of money (loans) could provide but it wasn’t enough

More recently, Montgomerie said certificate and diploma programs completed at universities and Nova Scotia Community College have been made eligible for the loan forgiveness program.

Montgomerie said the ratio of provincial assistance that is provided as a non-repayable grant has jumped from 20 per cent to 40 per cent of the total loan.

The deputy minister also touted COVID grants that provided 3,000 post-secondary students with a one-time $750 grant in the winter of 2021 to cover shortfalls in earnings and unexpected costs related to their studies.

Questioned about COVID’s effect on enrolment in the province, Montgomerie said there were 46,621 students in 2020-21. Of that number, 21,221 or 46 per cent, were Nova Scotians, with 30 per cent coming from outside of the province but within Canada and the remainder being international students.

The average price of a two-bedroom apartment in Halifax has increased 43 per cent in the last five years and the minimum wage has gone up 15 per cent, Chender said, asking what the department is doing to address housing costs that are forcing students to withdraw their enrolment because they can’t find a place to live.

When Montgomerie explained that cross-department efforts have led to rent supplements for students, Chender said our consistent position on rent supplements is that in a market with no availability, rent supplements are not particularly useful.

McDaniel, who hails from the community of Brook Village in Inverness County, said she spent $7,000 a year on tuition at St. F.X. and another $600 or $700 a month on a year-long payday loans GA lease in Antigonish.

I know right now the average one-bedroom in Halifax is closer to $1,300 a month and the vast majority of expenses are being eaten up by living costs, she said.

That’s why this year in our budget negotiations, we really pushed the fact that the system hasn’t been invested in since 2017 in terms of providing new aid. Forgiveness is good for graduates because we have less debt load on the back end but if I were coming into first or second year, I wouldn’t be getting any more money than I would in 2017 despite the fact that rent has gone up exponentially.

We know that even prior to COVID-19, 17 per cent of all of the students that were getting student loans from the government of Nova Scotia, their loans did not cover the assessed need.

If we were to look at 2021 numbers, particularly with COVID, it would be even more than one in five.