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Getting a loan

For the 60 per cent of university and college students who graduate with loans, their average load is roughly $26,000 (though that varies considerably from province to province, hitting $30,000 in Atlantic Canada and about $15,000 in Quebec). That has remained steady for the past 10 or 12 years, but since more students have started using loans to pay for school – hit by a double whammy of soaring tuition and fewer student jobs – the grand total of federal and provincial student debt has reached roughly $20-billion, according to Higher Education Strategy Associates.

Don't let that fool you into thinking it's a cinch to get a loan, though. Applicants are assessed based on a combination of factors, including tuition and other fees, your income and assets, and whether you'll be living at home (which can be defined as anything within 40 kilometres of your parents' house). Since the state expects your folks to cover a good portion of your education expenses until you're 22, you could be turned down if they have a high combined income – regardless of how tight their cash flow or whether they've refused to pitch in. According to Joseph Berger of Toronto-based Higher Education Strategy Associates, the system is optimized for middle-class students who go to school outside their hometown. "They're not living at home, their costs are very high, and they don't work as much," he says. "A kid from a low-income family who works and goes to college because it's cheaper and lives with their parents – they're going to lose out in the student aid calculation." If you are denied, you could always turn to one of the major Canadian banks, all of which offer student lines of credit – though, like anyone applying for a loan, they will assess you based on your future ability to repay it, which means you'll likely be grilled on your field of study.

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One thing to keep in mind is that if you do get a student loan, whether from the government or a bank, it might be for more than you actually need. Try to resist the temptation to spend it all if you don't absolutely have to – remember, you start accruing interest on your debt as soon as you graduate, though your first payment isn't due until six months later. Berger does have some good news: "The big-picture story is that the overwhelming majority of graduates of university and college go on to seek meaningful employment within six to 12 months of graduation, they earn significantly more than those who don't go to university or college, they are better sheltered from downturns in the economy, and their income tends to increase as they get older," he says. "If the only thing keeping you out of university or college is a reluctance to take on debt, I think the costs of not going are higher than the costs [of postsecondary education]."

Finding free money

With average tuition hovering north of $5,500 for Canadian students, it's worth spending some time investigating grants, scholarships and bursaries – even if you're not a varsity athlete or brainiac. The federal government hands out upward of 245,000 grants through its Canada Student Grants Program, geared toward low- and middle-income students, those with permanent disabilities or dependents, and students pursuing part-time programs. They won't exactly guarantee you a free ride – they range from $100 a month to $250 or so – but every soon-to-be-defunct penny helps. Check out the CanLearn website (canlearn.ca) for information, plus links to the financial aid offices for each province and territory. Many corporations offer scholarships to the children of employees; ask your parents to find out whether that's an option, or check out the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada website (aucc.ca/programs-services/scholarships/) – it manages roughly 140 scholarships on behalf of various companies and other organizations. Some other sources include studentawards.com and scholarshipscanada.com.

Finally, visit the financial assistance page for the schools of your choice and see what's on offer. Universities hand out automatic admission scholarships to students above a certain average, but there are all sorts of other school-specific awards available based on financial need, community involvement and extracurriculars, or factors such as whether your parents or grandparents served in the Canadian Forces. The University of Toronto even has a scholarship for anyone who can prove they're "blood kin" of a woman named Jean Glasgow. Time to bust out the family tree.

Check out: canlearn.ca/eng/main/publications/info/index.shtml for details on how to apply for federal, provincial and territorial loans and grants.

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