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Financial survival

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Financial survival

Breaking down the cost of living, learning, and the lengths some MacEwan students have gone to make ends meet

Everyone’s experience with post-secondary education is different. For some, the undergrad years are the best years of their lives, and for others, getting a degree can be an outright traumatic ordeal. Whether good or bad, one unifying aspect of the university experience is just how expensive it is. 

On the Facts and Figures section of MacEwan’s website, the average cost of tuition at MacEwan University is listed as $4,620 for a Bachelor’s degree, $4,020 for a certificate or diploma. Keep in mind that these numbers are for a single academic year. For international students, one year’s worth of tuition racks in at a startling $18,240, according to the same Facts and Figures section. And we’re still cheaper than the University of Alberta — not to mention the majority of universities further east! But this still comes as cold comfort in light of the damning CBC News story from July 2019 that compared minimum wage earnings with average rental costs. 

The article, written by Pete Evans, uses Statistics Canada data on wages and rental information from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) which were then calculated by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) to determine how many minimum-wage hours would have to be worked in order to afford either a one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment, assuming that no more than 30 per cent of income should be spent on housing. 

According to Evans, four of the most common positions in Canada — retail salesperson, cashier, food counter attendant or kitchen helper, and food and beverage server — aren’t able to pay rent for either a one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment, even when working 40 hours a week. Given that these positions are also commonly held by students — according to Statistics Canada, during the 2009/2010 school year, 96 per cent of postsecondary students who had jobs were employed in the service sector — trying to incorporate tuition costs into a budget seems almost impossible. 

But that’s why we have student loans and scholarships, right? 

As of September 2010, the total amount of student loans owed to the Government of Canada surpassed $15 billion dollars  — a debt greater than that of some provinces, according to a 2015 article by the Canadian Federation of Students. For Albertans, the average student loan debt incurred after a four-year program is around $23,000, according to Juris Graney’s Edmonton Journal article from September 2018. 

Financially, things are hard out there. For students who are responsible for children, mortgages, vehicle payments, or are dependent on disability benefits and support, it gets even harder. Likewise, students who have to relocate from home in order to attend school spend almost double what students who remain living with their parents spend, according to a 2018 article in Maclean’s. And, just as the cherry on top of it all, depending on the program, there can also be unexpected costs. Practicum programs such as education generally try to accommodate students’ placements within a reasonable distance, but for those nursing students who must complete the psychiatric health component of their clinical at Ponoka’s Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury, that can involve committing to a serious gas bill through commuting or making alternative arrangements for accommodation.  

“I wasn’t comfortable by any means, and placing myself on a strict budget was crucial.” 
— Corey Mills, third-year criminology student, MacEwan University

How do MacEwan students survive the financial burden of pursuing a post-secondary education? 

An informal poll on the MacEwan University Student Experience Facebook page yielded some interesting results. Of the students who responded to the poll, 244 said they worked while doing a full course load, and several of those students were among the 152 respondents who chose to stay at home with their parents or other family. Risking further debt was the next most common result, with 81 respondents claiming that they had taken out additional loans beyond student funding. Selling possessions in order to make money quickly was also a common practice with 41 respondents saying they had put something up for sale. A further 33 respondents stayed in an area of the city or at a job that made them feel unsafe but which was cost-effective. Thirty respondents claimed to have used coupons or food stamps to cut down on costs, and 24 respondents sacrificed their summers in order to make enough money to survive on a strict budget for the rest of the year. 

For Corey Mills, a third-year criminology student, these responses all-too-closely match his own experience during the first and second year of his Corrections diploma, and the first year and a half of his current degree. 

“I had to apply for student loans and third-party funding,” he says, “working one full time job and one part time job, all while taking care of my niece. I wasn’t comfortable by any means, and placing myself on a strict budget was crucial.” 

Unsurprisingly, the stress of working so much on top of his full course load had a serious impact on Mills’ mental health.

“I know full well that the cost of living far outweighs a single student’s ability to work, pay bills, and maintain a GPA,” he says, noting that he is still working on recovering from the psychological impact of his earlier years in postsecondary. Debt, after all, is not the only thing that students carry with them.     

Daniel Brassor, a Correctional Services graduate, says that he has managed with just working one part-time job while taking a full course load, but that things have been difficult despite this. Even with roommates, student loans, and working an average of 20 hours a week during school, Brassor finds it hard to make ends meet sometimes. 

“It’s not always enough, and I do struggle a lot at times. I really have to plan things out to make sure everything is paid correctly on time,” he says,

“It also sucks because when I’m stressing about money, my marks suffer.”

—Daniel Brassor

Though he admits he struggles with money management, Brassor had a clever way of making sure that his student loans were allocated properly. 

“I have learned that a good system is to take money from my student loans that I am using to help pay my bills and put it in Ziploc bags ready to be put into my account. For example, from September to December, I would have four Ziploc bags with my rent money for each month. This accomplishes two things for me: it makes it so I don’t have access to that money while I’m out, and it allows me to plan out what I’m going to pay and when during the term.”

Brassor also suggests that students who are struggling make the most of the resources available to them at MacEwan. During his first year, Brassor found himself short on money and was able to receive an emergency loan through the Students’ Association of MacEwan University (SAMU) in order to pay his rent. Beyond avoiding possible eviction, it was a positive experience for him. “I suggest going to talk to a financial aid advisor at MacEwan,” he says, “They were more than happy to help me out.” 

According to a 2015 article from the Edmonton Sun, there is also a growing number of MacEwan students who are looking into more substantial forms of financial support, such as registering as “sugar babies” on websites like SeekingArrangement.com. At the time the article was written, MacEwan University boasted the fifth-fastest growing user base among post-secondary institutions in Canada, with 174 members, almost 99 per cent of whom had joined in 2014 alone. 

In light of all the money that students will spend on school and all the debt they risk incurring, somehow seeking a “sugar daddy” or “sugar mommy” doesn’t seem any crazier than losing sleep and sanity working multiple jobs, or like I did, living as the only woman in a house with six male roommates in order to save on rent money. 

If you would like to share your wildest stories of financial survival while being a student, or if you have any clever post-secondary budgeting strategies, let us know in the comments of this article on our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/thegriffmag/.