College tuition 101

SCHOOL'S IN: Okanagan College's Jane Muskens on post secondary tuition costs

By Jane Muskens

Years ago, with a decent part-time job and working full-time during the summer, most students were able to cover the cost of going to college or university without absorbing a lot of student debt.

Before the mid-‘80s many students were able to graduate debt-free just because they were able to live at home.

Like everything else since then tuition has increased along with housing prices, groceries, fuel for your car etc. The only thing I can think of which has gone down in price is the cost of a computer.

Even though Canadian students lobby governments to keep tuition fees down, most provinces don’t really allow colleges and universities to increase their fees when and how they want.

For years B.C. had a tuition freeze and it was only in 2002 that this was lifted. Today, the government sets an annual cap increase of two per cent and this even applies to other fees such as an application fee.

So when a B.C. post-secondary institution is facing frozen funding or a reduction in it operating grant from the government, and when it faces increases in costs such as utilities or salaries, the only option to deal with a budget deficit is to find efficiencies. Those might include lay-offs and the cancellation of programs. The government is very clear that students should not bear the full financial impact of an institution dealing with a budget deficit.

This is important because although students complain about the rising cost of tuition fees, at least the B.C. government isn’t willing to let costs increase dramatically – which is part of the problem in Quebec.

Both the United States and England have allowed substantial increases in tuition to offset costs. In England in 1998 students paid about $2,500 per year. By 2010 this amount increased to approximately $5,300. Due to rising costs and a not-so-great British economy, the government lifted the tuition cap and by 2012 64 universities in England increased their annual tuition fees to $14,500.

This increase was significant enough to stop a number of students from going to university and in some cases for those already enrolled it stopped them from continuing and subsequently graduating.

The United States has had similar increases where tuition at public four-year colleges went up 73 per cent since 1999. Most of these costs were attributed to state budget cuts, and a shift away from government support to placing the financial burden on the student and their family.

Many publicly-funded colleges and universities were able to raise their tuition fees with very little backlash from the government.

Now with the recent recession, tuition has increased even more.

Tuition at American institutions varies from $5,000 to $50,000 per year (at Okanagan College students will pay approximately $3,100 in tuition if they are enrolled in our university transfer program). Washington State, California and New York have the highest fees for state universities. The University of California Berkley, Los Angeles and San Diego campuses have had tuition increases between 40 and 43 per cent since 2009.

Regardless of whether tuition is $1 or $50,000 it will always be an issue for students, their families and the institutions that set these fees. In most countries, tuition barely covers these costs – in B.C. on average the tuition students pay covers about 27 per cent. Most of the rest is covered by government support – that means you and me, working Canadians.

Jane Muskens is the registrar at Okanagan College. Comments can be forwarded to