Deconstructing disbursement: on late student loans

Many students are familiar with the pains of being in receipt of Ontario Student Assistance Plan (OSAP). While OSAP makes post-secondary education more accessible to residents of Ontario, the debt that is accrued, in addition to interest rates, is universally dreaded.

In many places in the world, access to higher education is considered a citizenship right. In others, it is a privilege that only the very few can afford.

Here in Canada, accessing post-secondary institutions is universally available on paper, but this isn’t always the case in practice due to stipulations that don’t take into account various family dynamics and financial situations that haven’t been pre-approved as legitimate by the board.

According to Statistics Canada, the average cost of tuition fees in Ontario for the 2014/2015 school year was $7,539. Statistics Canada also states, “Canadian full time students in undergraduate programs paid 3.2 per cent more on average tuition fees for the 2015/2016 academic year this year than they did the previous year.”

The fact that average tuition fees are $1,500 higher than they were five years ago in Ontario is a sobering reminder that tuition costs will only continue to skyrocket.

As post-secondary education tuition fees and the cost of living become exponentially more unaffordable, students are increasingly forced into applying for student loans.

Students can no longer work full-time summer jobs at minimum wage and expect to cover the majority of their tuition and living expenses for the school year, as they were once able to decades ago. It is for this reason that the timing of OSAP payments becomes crucial.

Trent students are not alone in receiving chronically late OSAP payments. Similar situations happen across various universities in Ontario, some of which include the University of Toronto and Fleming College. Many of these students have to reach out to family and friends for extra funds. Late OSAP disbursement has serious consequences for students who don’t have the privilege or ability to accrue savings to cover living expenses for the gap time between semesters.

In addition to the stresses and pressures of being a university student, many have the added stress of worrying about not being able to pay rent, hydro, phone bills or even necessities as basic as groceries. While late payments have negative effects on students in terms of their academics as well as the ability to provide basic necessities for themselves, it becomes all the more concerning when approximately 70 per cent of Trent students are receiving OSAP.

We reached out to Financial Aid at Trent University for comments on the current and historic chronically late OSAP disbursement, and were directed to Christopher Rooney, the Manager of Operations and Client Services at the Office of the Registrar.

While not willing to speak directly to Arthur staff, Rooney was open to commenting through email in collaboration with a “Media Relations and Strategic Communications Officer”. When asked about the delays in funding that affect many students so drastically, he responds, “If there are delays in funding, often these delays are caused by the student having outstanding paperwork, a need for additional documentation, course load changes that were not updated on the application, or restrictions on their OSAP account.”

However, this is simply not the case for many students who access student loans. One Trent student, who wishes to remain anonymous, states that their funding was cut off without warning due to an overestimate on the part of Financial Aid, after which they owed the University a large sum of money.

Many other students echo similar concerns surrounding abrupt changes or prolonged delays in funding.

Rooney also states that “all OSAP loans and grants are released close to the beginning of each term to ensure students are enrolled for their classes and provided the support needed to allow them to focus on their studies.”

Third-year Philosophy and Sociology student Nicky Varma shares the fact that students have to pay a late fee of $70-$75 for late tuition fees, which is due before OSAP release dates, lying in stark opposition to the former point.

Confirmation of enrolment is required for all OSAP-related financial aid, which can take until October. Many students already struggling financially must pay this rather significant fee to the University, due to the University’s inability to release funding on time.

This becomes even more difficult for students who are living with chronic illness and disabilities, to whom the energy to navigate the bureaucracy of the system is not as accessible as to those students who don’t face the same challenges.

The inevitable failings of an overly bureaucratic and inefficient system seem to be at fault in this case.  A lack of notices and general oversights seem to be causing most of the problems with students.

However, continuing to sweep these issues under the rug, avoiding responsibility, and denying the severe impact these late disbursements have on students’ academic success and ability to provide basic necessities for themselves will only contribute to a system where students continue to struggle unnecessarily.