This is a guest post by Robert, who lives in Calgary and worked as a financial adviser before retiring at age 35. He is married, has three kids and has returned to school with the goal of eventually living and working overseas.

Now that my wife and I have both returned to school, each working on a Masters of Education, we’re paying tuition again. At the University of Calgary, tuition costs around $1200 per course. I question whether or not it would be the same cost for undergraduate courses (and suspect it isn’t), but that’s the amount we’re paying. This summer, we’re paying $2500 each, and we have also paid for daycamps for our children at a cost of another $1800. This summer, the total cost to us of progressing in our education is around $6800.

I occasionally read in the newspaper that students are complaining that the cost of education is too high. They lobby the government to freeze tuition and they argue that their education benefits all of society. So I thought back to my days as a student at Laval University in Quebec City. At the time, I paid around $1500 per semester (or $300 per course) during my undergraduate degree. That doesn’t really seem like a  hardship. When I hear that student in Quebec are rioting over the cost of education, I feel very little sympathy.

Before living in Quebec, I lived for a while in France and I soon learned that post-secondary education is free. There is no tuition, but there is a cost for books and housing. There is also the side-effect that universities are often overcrowded. I wonder how common it is for a country to offer free post-secondary education? In my current course, there are women who moved to Canada a long time ago from Cuba and Venezuela. They each told me that their country offers free post-secondary education. So are we paying too much?

The tricky part of that question is the underlying assumption: are we paying too much in relation to what? At the University of Calgary, we pay more for tuition than students in Quebec, in Europe and in some Latin American countries. Closer to home, however, I have a different frame of reference. As a student, I had very little money, so $3000 a year was a big part of my budget. By comparison, $10,000 this year (for the two of us) is a smaller portion of our budget. We also have a very specific personal (family) goal that this education moves us toward. From our current vantage point, the cost of our education is worthwhile to us.

Is/was the cost of your education worthwhile to you? Do you see it as a cost, as an investment or as a necessary evil?

11 thoughts on “Tuition”

  1. My college education at first seemed like a cost but it later turned out be a fine investment. While my tuition rose about 10% per year (just over 32% from year 1 to year 4), in my first 3 years of working my salary rose 65%, enabling me to pay off my student loans, buy a new car, and save up what I needed to buy an apartment a short time later (and get a mortgage).

    This was all back in the 1980s when inflation was high as well as tuition and student loan interest rates (mine was 8%). But salary increases were even higher, as I was in a field which had some turnover so my company was willing to pay to keep me around. Without a college degree this would not have been possible.

  2. I’m still a student, just about to enter my 3rd year of a Canadian law school. I think it is safe to say that even if I went to UoToronto (which I don’t) at over $16k/year (the most expensive Canadian law school), the education is well-worth the investment.

    That said, many of my classmates would be unemployable if they weren’t in law school with me. I know they say that “Arts degrees run the world” but does it have to be that way?

    In my home province of BC, it is quite common among my friends to get an undergraduate degree in their passion… and then go to BCIT (trade school) for some actual skills and employment prospects. I assume it is similar in other provinces. I love that people pursue their passions and interests in university… but you better NOT complain about the cost if you’re going to do that, knowing full well you won’t have a job at the end.

    All in all, I think education costs are just fine! It’s the CHOICES people make in pursing certain degrees that needs to be scrutinized.

  3. Les Québécois paient beaucoup plus d’impôts que les Albertains. Personnellement je suis à > 50% auquel s’ajoute la taxe de vente de 15%. C’est beaucoup et ça doit payer pour quelque chose.

  4. I agree that no sympathy should be felt for Quebec students rioting. They pay the lowest tuition in Canada.

    But being a student, I can tell you that total costs (housing, tuition, fees, books, food) is about $20,000. I am very frugal and managed to get by while only paying $17,000. If you can live at home it can be cheaper but it is still very expensive. This is in Ontario.

    The problem is the costs’ relation to income. I worked a very good job during my summmers in high school and only managed to make $15,000 in those four years. And even though I saved a lot I didn’t have all that money to pay to school. Tuition should be lower, but the $5,500 I paid was only about a third. University is expensive. And it needs to be seen as an investment because you are forgoing income before you have had the chance to save any income. The cost of school should be seen as even higher because while I am paying for school, there is also the opportunity cost of money I am missing simply by not having the time to work.

  5. Pretty interesting content you have come up with. I still remember during my college days, our financial condition wasn’t that much high to cope up with my high level college expense. I had started giving tuition since that point of time in order to arrange sufficient money for paying fees, canteen bills and all…. till date haven’t let go off this habit. 🙂
    Andrea Jones

  6. I also have little sympathy for the protests in Quebec. It’s all relative, and what you’re paying is definitely up there, although to be expected in a Masters. Good luck!

  7. It’s an issue as this that highlights how Quebec and ROC are two completely different cultures. Almost as much as American and Russian.

    Two posters from Quebec discussed in French how education should be free and how they accept higher taxes for lower tuitions.

    They both sympathizes with the students.

    However, outside Quebec, English posters think tuitions should be high and taxes should be low. That education is a personal gain. That society should not bare the cost of higher education, since, (I guess), society does not benefit from having a population with higher education.

    I would disagree strongly with this.

    Society gains much more. If I am educated and you are not, you benefit since corporations will come to Canada to hire me as manager and you as a worker. And government will tax all three. Without my education, the same corporation will go elsewhere.

    Everyone gains from higher education; not just the individual. Therefore mosst of it should be paid by the government as long as you are passing your classes.

    Re-taking a class should not be free since you are either not in the right area or wasted your time.

    But as long as you spend the time, pass your classes, forgo the earnings, government should pay since society benefits the most.

    I’m not a student but the ROC argument is very twisted and centered on an individualistic society. Clearly not what Quebec is, or aspire to be.

  8. Wow, long post. Sorry.

    What I meant to say is:

    A person choice to gain higher education is as much a gain for society (ie Canada’s competitiveness in a global society) as it is an individual gain.

    Therefore cost should be bared by both. You pay your living expenses while forgoing potential earnings; meanwhile the government pays all tuitions.

    Asking an individual to bare all or most despite having little to no money is immoral and selfish. How can ROC defend this?!

  9. I think there is an argument to be made about whether the individual or society benefits more. Certainly society benefits to some degree, so it should pay some portion of the cost of an individual’s education. But most of it? How do you quantify this benefit?

    Does society benefit more by having a large number of people who have pursued their passions or by cutting emergency room wait times in half and possibly saving a few lives? Because that is the real question, whether education spending is of higher value than what it replaces.

    Having recently graduated from undergrad, I think it’s fair to say that a decent portion of education costs are providing almost no benefit, economic or otherwise, to the citizens of Canada. Having a student spend 4-7 years in university to come out of it with one of the less employable degrees and take a job that does not use his/her skills is not an intelligent use of limited public dollars. And if you lower the cost to next to nothing, I think you would see much more of that problem than you do today, where the tuition helps to deter people from wasting time.

    In fact, some schools are taking steps to reduce the costs of those degrees relative to degrees where graduates are sought out by employers. Which is to say they’re hiking tuition only on Commerce, Engineering, and the like. So rather than listen to what the labour market needs and doesn’t need, we encourage more people to spend time and effort on something that will provide themselves and us with only limited benefit.

    Certainly people can pursue their passions. I recognize that there is value in having educated people around, regardless of what they study, but, as mentioned above, there is an economic tradeoff involved in doing so that affects everyone, and it is rarely presented as a choice between one more food inspector or one more history major.

  10. I appreciate all the comments. I’m sorry I didn’t take the time to respond to each one, but they all make good points. This is not a simple subject, and the “right answer” isn’t clear (as far as public policy). What is clear, to me, is that cost is relative to earning and savings and students often have no earnings or savings.

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