By almost every measure, post- secondary education is less affordable today than at any time in the last 60 years, according to a report released in September by CAUT.
Access Denied: The Affordability of Post-secondary Education in Canada tracks changes in tuition and incidental fees from 1857 to 2002 and finds that when fees are adjusted for inflation, students today are paying more than at any other time in the past. Today's university student is charged six times what a student was in 1914.
"The numbers paint a bleak picture about the ability of modest- and middle-income families to pay for a post-secondary education," says CAUT president Victor Catano. "Tens of thousands of academically qualified students are in danger of being denied access to a college or university education."
The study considers how affordable tuition is today compared with previous periods by plotting the number of hours of work at an average carpenter's wage it would take to pay for tuition. By this measure, the report shows, it takes more hours of work to pay for tuition today than at any time since 1940.
"In 1870, it would require about 111 hours of carpenter labour, at nine cents an hour, to pay the typical $10 undergraduate tuition fee charged that year," the report states. "Today, despite the fact that the average hourly wage of a carpenter has increased to $27, it takes nearly 180 hours of work to pay the cost of tuition, well below the low point of just 69 hours recorded in 1920. In other words, university tuition fees are less affordable for typical middle-income earners today than at any other time since 1940 and are approaching an all-time historic high."
The report also finds the biggest relative increases in tuition fees occurred over the past 10 years.
"In 1990, it would have required 102 hours of manufacturing work to pay for one year of undergraduate arts tuition," the report notes. "By 2002, that figure had jumped to 197 hours."
The increased financial burden was even more dramatic for professional programs.
"Law school tuition fees could be paid with 100 hours of manufacturing work in 1990, but today a total of 265 hours of work is needed. In 1990, one year of tuition in a dentistry program would have required 124 hours of work, compared to 512 hours today. For medical school, fees were equal to 118 hours of manufacturing work in 1990 and 425 hours in 2002."
Overall, the CAUT study seems to cast new doubts on other reports suggesting that post-secondary education costs remain affordable and have not compromised accessibility.
A study released Sept. 16 by the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation argues that while "gaps in access to post-secondary education persist," contrary to popular opinion "a decade of rapid rises in tuition fees and student loan borrowing has not reduced overall accessibility."
The Price of Knowledge: Access and Student Finance in Canada argues that other non-financial factors, such as academic preparedness and awareness of post-secondary education options, are more important in determining whether high school graduates go on to college or university.
"To continue to improve equality of access, it is clear that the emphasis on student financial aid needs to be supplemented with new efforts," said Alex Usher, coauthor of the study and director of research and program development for the foundation. "The problem will not be solved simply by writing larger cheques."
But student groups say the foundation's report is misleading and is an attempt to apologize for continuing government inaction.
"By denying the negative impact of increasing tuition fees and soaring debt on students from middle and lower socioeconomic backgrounds, the foundation is providing an alibi for further deterioration in access to higher education," said Joel Duff, Ontario chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students.
Duff said that much of the data in the foundation's report is 10 years old, collected prior to the rapid rise in tuition fees. He noted that Statistics Canada recently reported that high school graduates from higher socioeconomic groups are now 2.5 times more likely to attend university than those from lower socioeconomic groups.
"To suggest that high tuition fees and student debt do not reduce access to education flies in the face of a growing body of evidence showing precisely the opposite," Duff said.
Catano agrees there is compelling evidence showing that rising costs are raising insurmountable barriers for many academically qualified high school students.
"It seems inconceivable to me that precisely at the time it's becoming widely accepted that access to a college or university education is critical to the personal development of individuals and to the social and economic progress of the nation that we would have governments that adopt policies that are restricting access," Catano said.