Canada might not have free universal post-secondary education, but the NWT has come pretty close, with thousands available as grants and forgivable loans. Is it working to bring educated students back north?
R.J. Simpson thinks the Northwest Territories’ Student Financial Assistance (NTSFA) is one of the best in the country. He should know. Before he became the government minister in charge of overseeing the program, he was a recipient.
“In 2015 I was out of law school and I was looking for a place to article,” says Simpson, now MLA for Hay River North. “And I could have gone south and I could have come north, and I can tell you that northern bonus and that loan remission factored into my decision to come back to the North.”
Across all three Canadian territories, the funding available for students, especially Indigenous students, is generous. It has to be. With only one university North of 60 (the recently upgraded Yukon College) most students who want to pursue higher education either need to do it over distance, or travel south. The challenge is how to get them back once they go.
There are several streams of funding available for northern students. Basic grants that cover tuition, books and travel are available for northern Indigenous students and northern residents who completed grades from 1 to 12 in the territory. Students also have access to $850 a month to cover living costs in the form of a supplementary grant for Indigenous students, or as a remissible loan for northern residents that can be forgiven once the student moves back to the NWT to begin their career (they’re eligible for one year’s worth of remissible loans for every year of schooling they completed in the territory). On top of that, there are also repayable loans available. But unlike many provincial programs, where people may find themselves paying the interest for years without touching the principal, these have a zero per cent interest rate, as long as the student moves back to the NWT after graduation.
And what if you’re only a recent northern resident? There’s money for you too: the Northern Bonus gives newcomers to the North with student debt from outside the territory up to $2,000 a year to pay it down. That’s unique not just across the country, but even in the North.
That was on purpose, says Andy Bevan. When he spoke with Up Here, Bevan was the assistant deputy minister, labour and income security, for the GNWT's department of Education, Culture and Employment. Soon after, however, it was announced he will now be taking charge of transitioning Aurora College into a polytechnic university.
“When we revised the program in 2015, we were very aware that we wanted to be the best of the three [territories],” he says. “To make sure that any Northerners that plan on coming back North came to the NWT.”
It worked for the minister, after all. Currently, there are about 1,350 students accessing the benefits available, according to Nicole Beauchamp, the director of income security programs who oversees the NTSFA. That number has been growing or holding steady since the latest version of the program launched in 2015. Right now, the current rate for tuition grants is $2,400 per semester, plus a $550 per-semester book allowance. The monthly living stipend is available as a supplementary grant for northern Indigenous residents, or a remissible loan for northern residents that can be forgiven if they return to the North after graduation. For every year you live here, the GNWT could forgive approximately $6,000 of student debt. “Everybody’s treated the same,” says Beauchamp. “You all get the same amount of money, it doesn’t matter what financial status you’re in.” That’s a sticking point for some students. While the NWT has a few options, such as for students with young children, unlike other programs such as the Ontario Student Assistance Program the NTSFA is not needs based.
“Yes I could have not gotten the $850 a month, which I knew you had to repay,” says one former Hay River resident and NTSFA recipient who preferred not to be named. “But I grew up in a single-parent, low-income household so that really was not an option for me.” Ironically, if she grew up in a province where tuition grants were based on individual needs, she probably would have started out her career less in the red.
Finishing her fourth year, she’s looking down the barrel at more than $40,000 in student debt, including remissible loans for living costs. She knows that a large portion of her debt would be forgiven if she returned to the North, but that’s not an option for every career path. “They fail to realize that in a small territory, there are not always the jobs available for every degree,” she says.
In other jurisdictions, such as Ontario, students receive grants based on family income so those from lower-income brackets have access to additional supports. But not in the NWT. The territory’s one-size-fits-all program also covers six years of funding, which doesn’t always stretch far enough for certain programs or cover more expensive degrees in law and medicine.
Even if they aren’t coming from a low-income background, some students feel they could use more support in managing their budgets.
“Often the consensus is that we feel like we are dropped off in the south with $850 in spending cash to get by,” says Brandon Cooke, who recently graduated from Okanagan College for Business Administration, and has been working in the tourism industry within Yellowknife for five years. “Some may have the responsibility to manage themselves, but many students are still learning key life skills in their first years. I would love to see more guidance.”
Nearly four dozen students contacted Up Here, in the span of only a few days, eager to share their thoughts and experiences with the NTSFA program. Most were exceedingly positive. The few that weren’t often shared concerns like Cooke’s, where the program they wanted to pursue wasn’t eligible for NTSFA, and other similar logistical or bureaucratic issues.
For most, though, the contrast to their provincial peers when it comes to student assistance is startling.
“Especially going to Ontario where they have [the Ontario Student Assistance Program] and a lot of students can’t even afford to go to school, you realize how lucky we are,” says Abigale Coad. She’s originally from Yellowknife, but is in the fourth year of her degree in international development at Queen’s University and Trent University, where she’s part of the Trent in Ghana program.
“I have friends back at Queen’s, they work full-time while in school. With [NTSFA] you don’t really have to work, especially if you come back in the summers to work. I don’t mean to sound bad, but you’re basically a rich student in comparison to other students.”
For Coad, and many other students, the generous funding allows them to focus on their class work, and start their careers without being thousands of dollars in debt. She, and several other students, actually prefer that the funding is not based on family income. For many students, while their families may have a certain amount of money on paper, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re available to support further education.
Coad does intend to come back to the territory after she’s finished school, even though her family has since moved away. That’s exactly what Simpson and others involved with the program hope for. He’s looking at the long game for territorial development.
“We absolutely need people to come back after going south for an education. In the coming years, almost four out of five jobs are going to require post-secondary education, and who better to work in the North than Northerners,” he says. “We often struggle with people coming up from the south and working for a few years and then heading back down south and we want to help build the northern workforce.”
The question is, is it working? Bevan estimates that only one out of every eight students who were at any point in the program are coming back each year. Data on whether they were staying North, once their loans were repaid, wasn’t available, but anecdotally, Beauchamp thinks many do.
“There’s going to be the odd person, they just come and go, right. But I feel that once you come back for one year or two years or three years, the chances of you staying longer increase.”
For many students, the remissible loan program is a huge checkmark in favour of returning to the NWT.
Caroline Kaufman, who has accessed the program throughout her seven years of schooling in Alberta and British Columbia, says it’s alleviated a lot of stress that comes with figuring out how to pay for school. “I’m still not decided if I will return home right away or not, but knowing that this is one of the perks of going back weighs hugely in my decision.”
It’s one of the rare programs where it’s hard to find debate over its funding. Even though it’s no small chunk of change to keep it going. In 2018, 246 students received the Northern Bonus, at $2,000 each. That means the GNWT shelled out $492,000 in a single year to help newcomers pay down debt from other parts of Canada. Remissible loans and grants brings the total cost of the program into the millions. And yet, it’s a vital part of the education strategy and population growth in the territory. The NWT is one of the few parts of Canada that seems to be stuck in an almost perpetual labour shortage. According to the GWNT, the labour market forecast predicts there will be between 28,500 and 36,700 job openings across the NWT in the next 15 years. That’s more than the entire population of Yellowknife. And those jobs require education. The forecast predicts that by 2030, the majority of jobs will require a college diploma, skilled trades certification or a university degree. Only 14 per cent of jobs will require a high school level education. For many politicians, it seems worth the cost to bring Northerners home.
“It’s so obvious it’s hard to even answer,” says Simpson. “It’s great to not have student loan debt. I mean, you can actually get out of school and start moving ahead with your life and not have to worry about paying off another loan.”
You could even wind up a government minister. At least, if you come back home.