Help students by tackling student debt says Grit leadership contender

To realize our goal of a prosperous Canada, we must build a knowledge-based economy. To do that, we must have the most educated, most creative, and most entrepreneurial workforce in the world.

And that starts with our youth, with education – in our high schools, our colleges and universities. It is here that dreams are born and flourish. It is through education that we enable our future, young Canadians to succeed in the world.

Education is the key to better jobs and better incomes. While today Canada ranks among the best in the world for the number of post-secondary graduates, we are among the worst in graduating PhDs, particularly in science and technical fields.

And Canada faces an unacceptable income-based education gap, with almost two thirds of low-income students dropping out of school in some communities. Further, while 76 per cent of urban youth pursue higher education, only 67 per cent of rural youth do.

According to BMO Financial Group, 42 per cent of Canadian families are not confident they will be able to afford to send their kids to college or university.

No Canadian should be denied access to education, including post-secondary education, because of where they are from or the income of their family.

But the current Canada Student Loan system is harsh. For many students, upon graduation, they face a double-whammy: the stressful burden of a large student loan, compounded by a national youth unemployment rate twice the national average.

With few job opportunities our graduates are caught in an unforgiving world of no job with an obligation to pay back their student loan.

This must change.

Today, Canada’s federal government, in cooperation with our provinces, offers various programs to aid those that cannot afford to repay their loans. The Repayment Assistance Program and the Revision of Terms program works with students by identifying their income and adjusting the rate in which students must pay.

But these programs can be opaque and difficult.

What I propose is to work with our provinces and territories to fundamentally transform the Canada Student Loans program and the Repayment Assistance Program to make repayment more transparent, predictable and accessible.

Under my proposed system, I would abolish the six-month “grace period” and instead make it an indefinite time period. No student would be forced to make payments to their student loan until they found a job – a well paying job.

I would institute an income threshold of about $40,000. Only once the student has found gainful employment would repayment begin.

What would this do? We would transform our student assistance.

By making the Canada Student Loans and Repayment Assistance Program more predictable and accessible, we will relieve our students of an enormous burden and simultaneously make our post-secondary education system more progressive.

No student in Canada, no matter their income or the income of their family, would have to face the question of whether they should go to college or university because they could not afford it.

They will be able to pursue their education with the knowledge that they can afford it and will only have to repay their loan when they have found a solid job.

Under my proposed system, no longer will a graduating student need to worry about their crushing debt, the prospect of no job and having to pay back their loans.

As education is a provincial responsibility, provinces would have the option to opt out of this plan and the federal government would continue to support them.

But ultimately, the goal of federal and provincial partners must be to achieve a better system – a system that maintains tuition at affordable levels, does not shift the burden of education increasingly to students and makes post-secondary education accessible to all Canadians no matter where they come from or the income of their family.

Access to post-secondary education for all Canadians regardless of circumstances is the most basic building block of a fairer, more prosperous society.

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