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The carrot and stick logic of paying for your kid’s tuition

How much money do parents have to earn before they should pay their kids' tuition? Last year, Quebec answered with $28,000, the lowest income threshold in Canada. Post-summit that will rise to a princely $45,000 by 2015.

Discussions of tuition usually focus on how much students can afford and the debt burden they will face after graduation. In reality, the costs of university are shared by students and parents, part of the reason tuition – and the issue of parental contributions – has become a political football. Last year, when the Alberta government was bathing in crude, it mandated a flat $1,500 contribution rather than a progressively increasing scale based on income. Ontario is willing to engage in many fights but it won't withdraw its 30 per cent tuition rebate to students with family incomes under $160,000.

Yet short of putting themselves in line at a food bank, parents should pay as much of the cost of university tuition as they can scrape. After 18 years of paying for diapers, extracurriculars, birthday parties and cellphones, it's understandable that some may jump at the chance to have the offspring earn some of that money back. But university is precisely the wrong time to draw dividends from the existing investment. Instead, it's the time to double down.

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When governments got out of the nation's bedrooms they did not leave the family room. Provincial aid offices have very definite views on how much parents should contribute. As long as a family's "discretionary" income falls above a set level, which varies by province, parents are on the hook. Manitoba, for example, explains how they arrive at their results here.

And the government is not just explicit about the amounts, but its reasoning too. (You can check your approximate expected contribution here.) Families are expected to plan for the cost of university education. Student aid officers will not make up a shortfall caused by parents who believe that independence starts at 18, who don't agree with the student's field of study or school, or parents who don't approve of a student's living arrangements. Students and parents are only liberated from each other four years after the end of high-school, if a student is living with a partner and/or a child, or after the student has been working full-time for two years.

In other words, this is a policy that forces parents and students to talk. For students, this has been a continual source of aggravation. The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance gathered statistics that showed that only about half of students said they received money from their parents, testament either to unreasonable parents or to poor negotiation skills: Is a minor in a science, any science, not worth a few thousand a year? (I know what my answer was when I was 18. No. Terrible negotiation skills.)

It's also poor decision-making. Free money is a much better choice than a part-time job at J.Crew. Half of female students carry part-time jobs to help pay for postsecondary education and 40 per cent of male students do, a striking gender discrepancy. Are those extra hours logged by students whose families can't afford to shoulder more of the cost of education, or those who don't approve of a psychology degree? By another striking margin, they are largely held by Canadian-born students who work an average of 16 hours a week compared to their foreign-born counterparts, only a third of whom work during the school year.

Immigrant families, by necessity and by habit, are more likely to have stronger expectations and to communicate those expectations. As it turns out, that's the winning combination for success in university. A recent and much-talked about study found that financial help and communication translated to higher marks and graduation rates compared to students who received money with no strings attached.

For some, working part-time is a way to get what is considered valuable work experience and to graduate into a job market with a degree and real-world credentials. Most often, though, those jobs are retail or restaurant jobs, hardly the making of resumes that stand out in the same way that yes, an unpaid internship with an NGO, would.

Parents of all incomes intuitively know that saving for education is smart and the more money they have the more they invest in their kids' future. So governments are right when they demand families contribute even when they don't have a lot to spare – not because it makes provincial coffers look better but because it helps student achievement.

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Simona Chiose is The Globe and Mail's education editor.

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About the Author
Postsecondary Education Reporter

Simona Chiose covers postsecondary education for The Globe and Mail. She was previously the paper’s Education Editor, coordinating coverage of all aspects of education, from kindergarten to college and university. She has a PhD in political science from the University of Toronto. More

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