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Not Your Parents’ Higher Ed


Boomers and Gen X: Higher Ed Ain’t What it Used to Be

Anyone old enough to remember what getting a degree was like before everyone had a personal computer and a cell phone won’t fully understand the financial reality today’s college and university students are facing. Many from the Boomer and Gen X generations graduated from higher ed when tuition, food and rent were relatively inexpensive. We (the authors of the study are Gen X’ers) had it relatively easy because our summer jobs would pay for much of one year of higher ed. If we worked while attending school, a lot of the time it was to have some pocket money—not to put food on the table. Our persistence didn’t depend on part-time employment.

Collectively we are two generations that can say “we have no idea” how hard it is for many students to fund their higher education. This is a big reason we undertook this study—to highlight real-life struggles students are facing in their pursuit of higher education.

At the end of this document, we’ve included some of the most compelling (sometimes heart-wrenching) reality checks for anyone who thinks students don’t need financial help, or thinks that $100 isn’t enough to make a huge difference to a student’s life.

We’ve also made recommendations on ways donors can help in measureable and meaningful ways which come from ScholarshipsCanada and HigherEdPoints’ decades of experience in the student funding field and from working with Financial Aid Officers across the country.


Survey Methodology & Demographics

Over 1,600 respondents completed the national and “Funding Higher Education in 2016” survey, which was fielded on-line with registered members of the ScholarshipsCanada database between March 18th– 23rd 2016.

Of the 1600+ respondents, 74% were female, 26% male. The majority were in the upper years of university (60%) or college (15%), with the remainder in their first year (university 6%; college 13%) or Masters and PhD programs (2%).

The decision to recruit a more senior cohort for the study was conscious. First year students are most likely to be “flush” with funding, with personal savings, a fresh RESP to tap into, entrance awards and millions of dollars of non-institutional awards available in their graduating year. It’s the upper year students who feel the financial pinch once they’ve completed more than one year of their studies. These students have had more time to get a handle on the “true” expenses of their higher ed (upper year students tend to live off campus, buy used textbooks instead of new, know more about budgeting, etc.). Most upper year students will also have a pretty clear picture of the debt they are likely to have upon graduation.

A fruitful result of this older demographic is the richness of their responses to our open ended questions regarding the financial assistance from donors they say would be most helpful.

The Cost of Higher Ed in 2016 (Tuition’s Just the Start) & Expected Debt

Across all respondents, the average amount students report spending for one year of studies is approximately $14,000, with 68% reporting their annual tuition was between $5,000 and $10,000.

We asked respondents what their total expenditures to date had been on their higher ed. Those in their upper years in college averaged $17,000. Upper year university students averaged $31,500 and those in grad school averaged over $48,000. There were individual students from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), nursing, business, and surprisingly the education fields of study who had invested a staggering $100,000 on their studies to date.

It’s always interesting to see how much debt students who are still in school estimate they will have by the time they graduate from their programs. In our survey:

  • 15% reported they will graduate debt-free;
  • 20% thought they would come out with less than $10,000 to pay back;
  • 18% with between $10,000 and $20,000 of debt;
  • 28% felt they would have somewhere between $20,000 and $40,000 worth of debt, and
  • 19% estimated they will have over $40,000 of educational debt.


How Students Fund Their Higher Education

Based on the above data, it is obvious many students will graduate with significant debt. We were very interested in understanding more about the sources of funding students were tapping into while at school to cover their expenses.

The first place a student (more likely their parents) will look for funds is from their prospective school(s) themselves. Entrance awards are common and often granted based simply on a student’s graduating average. Some are renewable, others not, but it’s a nice break on tuition for those who receive them.

In our study, 40% of respondents didn’t get any awards (merit-based) from their institution—but 60% did get at least some money. The majority received up to $1,000 (22%) or somewhere between $1,000 and $2,500 (18%). Just under 12% were awarded between $2,500 and $5,000 and approximately 8% received over $5,000.

Institutions might be interested to know that 68% of those who did receive an award said it didn’t actually influence their decision to attend that institution (to receive a report with detailed results from this part of the study, email or with the subject line: “Award influence study”).



Cobbling Together Multiple Sources of Funding

While 85% of students said they had used personal savings to pay for school, and 71% had parents or other relatives helping them (outside of RESPs), the number one source of funding in terms of dollar volume came from government student loans ($20,000 was the average received).

Source of funds Percentage of respondents who listed this as a source of funding Ranking in terms of amount of funds from this source
Government student loans (Canada Student Loans and/or Provincial loans)



Help from parents or other relatives (outside of RESPs)



Personal savings (from summer jobs, etc.)



Registered Education Savings Plan (RESPs)



Non-government loans (e.g. bank loans or lines of credit)



Institutional awards (e.g. entrance awards, scholarships, grants, bursaries from your school)



Non-institutional awards (from corporations or donors not administered through your institution):



*this number is higher than the 60% who reported getting awards from their institution because it also includes grants and bursaries.

The percentage of students who had some funding from RESPs is 49%, but the amount of money coming from this source ranks 4th in terms of amount of funds overall. The individual value of funds from RESPs varied widely—from $3,000 up to $70,000.


The Gap-Filler: Working While at School

Current wisdom asserts that holding a part-time job while attending school can have a positive effect on academic performance, with the ideal number of hours worked per week at less than 15 (this article provides an interesting overview of the topic:

In our study, 53% of students report they are currently working—61% of those under 15 hours a week; 22% between 15 and 25 hours per week. Surprisingly 17% work more than 25 hours per week. Of this final group, the most frequently reported fields of study were business and arts and humanities (20% each).

Regardless of the number of hours worked, the majority of those working (75%) were being paid minimum wage (up to $15/hour). 7% made less than minimum wage, 15% were lucky enough to earn between $15 and $25, but only 2% made more than $25 per hour.

The survey’s open-ended responses indicated many students were unable to find employment that would accommodate their school schedules, if they could find a job at all.



The Kind of Help Students Say Would go the Longest Way

We wrapped up the study with a question that allowed students to imagine they had the opportunity to speak directly to a donor to ask for help paying for school. The level of detail expressed by many respondents to this question was impressive—and insightful. Responses were reviewed and the most frequently mentioned items are cataloged here. (An Appendix with a verbatim selection of these open-ended responses can be found at the end of this document. To receive a report with detailed results from this part of the study, email or with the subject line: “Help for higher ed OE results”).

While help paying for tuition (40%) was most frequently requested, rent (30%) was the second most mentioned—and seemingly daunting—expense. Students lamented the lack of affordable housing near their institutions. Many mentioned they’d prefer to be able to live on, or closer to campus, but wouldn’t be able to commit to paying rent for the duration of their studies. A trend emerged with many suggesting “scholarships for rent” would be a tremendous help.

Behind rent, food and groceries (20%) were next on the list of items most students were struggling to fund. There were many references to difficulty “fueling the brain” with the right kinds of food because of their expense.

General living expenses and transportation (both 8%) were mentioned in the context of costs that were often much higher than anticipated. Students who chose to live at home because of the cost of rent mentioned spending thousands of dollars on transportation ($17 a day for public transportation, gas for the long commute to campus, parking fees, etc).

Stress came up as a recurrent theme throughout the open-ended responses. Students expend a lot of energy worrying about paying bills in the moment—even more so than the debt they will have to pay back upon graduation. The worry associated with finding funds for rent and healthy food was most often mentioned. In many responses, the sense of a hand-to-mouth existence comes across very strongly and was coupled with comments that program completion seemed tenuous because of their finances.

How Can Corporations, Individuals and Other Donors Help Fill Some of the Gaps?

The purpose of conducting the study was to understand the real costs (in addition to tuition) and funding sources for higher ed. More importantly, we want to pinpoint additional ways we can help all Canadian students fund their education.

How does a donor (individual or corporate) find these students and provide them with the support they most need, be it for tuition, rent, food, public transit, etc.? The answer is surprisingly simple and it resides within every single educational institution in the country: through campus Financial Aid and Awards offices.

Financial Aid Officers are already the campus custodians of funds disbursed to students. They handle government student aid, their own institution’s awards and bursaries and any new student-award funding that comes on to campus. They have access to all students and students have access to them—they are the best, most efficient and most qualified people to get your donations into the hands of the students who need help the most.

Here are some of the top recommendations from Financial Aid Officers we’ve heard over the years:

    1. Don’t create a new scholarship, donate cash to a Financial Aid emergency fund. Funds donated to a school in the form of scholarships or bursaries usually require applications. Awarding them (for the Financial Aid Office) and applying for them (for the student) takes a long time.These scholarship funds can’t help cover unexpected financial emergencies. Ask any Financial Aid Officer to think of a student for whom $100 would make a world of difference—and each will be able to come up with at least a dozen students off the top of their heads. Cash donations to Financial Aid, even $50 or $100, can be put into an emergency fund for students who can’t make their rent, don’t have money for food or to need to buy a transit pass.
    2. Still want to offer a scholarship? Relax the criteria.   Scholarships often unintentionally reward the privileged. This open-ended comment sums up the irony of many scholarships: “It’s the students from the wealthier families who do all the things the scholarships are looking for, and ironically, they aren’t the ones who need the help the most!”  The student went on to say he/she had to work to help his family, and didn’t have time to volunteer and study as a result, yet many scholarships are looking for community service as a basic criterion. There is enough money out there already for the uber-achieving students. In addition, Financial Aid Officers have a hard time finding students for awards with tons of criteria. Relax the criteria, choose a specific field of study (nurses are the poorest of them all; Business and STEM students have all the awards they’ll ever need!), a year of study (3rd and 4th year students have few awards and know the value of $100!) or one criterion core to your values. Create an award that’s open to many and easy to apply for. Trust the Financial Aid Officers to find a student(s) worthy of your generosity.
    3. An option with dividends: funding a campus work-study student.The Financial Aid Office is also usually where campus “work-study” programs are managed. If you want to amplify the benefit of your donation, earmark it for work-study—there are always more students than funds for these programs. Recipients get a paid on-campus job, making it easier to balance the work with their class schedules and other commitments. Students reap the benefits of both a pay cheque and valuable work experience to add to a resume.



It’s in everyone’s best interest to support the attainment of education for all Canadians. Access is a large part of the equation of course, but it’s only the first part of the story. Degree/diploma completion and graduation without crushing debt are equally important chapters. Helping to create adequate financial security throughout all students’ studies is a shared mission of ScholarshipsCanada and HigherEdPoints. This study highlights many areas where there’s potential for us to collaborate with donors—both corporate and individual—to create new, innovative sources of higher education funding to narrow the current gaps that exist for thousands of students.

Please see the Appendix below for verbatim selections of open-ended responses to our question about what type of helps students need the most to finance their higher education.

To receive a separate report with additional responses to the question of type of help needed, please email: or with the subject line: “Help for higher ed OE results”.

To receive a report with detailed results regarding the influence entrance or other awards have on the decision of students to attend the granting institution, please email or with the subject line: “Award influence study”.



Part of the EDge Interactive group of companies, operates Canada’s largest “matching” database of scholarships, bursaries, educational and non-educational awards, Since 1995, EDge Interactive, which also includes, has worked directly with hundreds of educational institutions and millions of students, parents and educators around the world.

To learn more about EDge Interactive and services offered by, including marketing, market research, and scholarship administration services, please contact Chris Wilkins, President & CEO at EDge Interactive at 416.494.3343 or by email at


About has created access to an innovative new source of funding for higher education: loyalty points. Students, parents, alumni and donors are now able to convert anyone’s Aeroplan® Miles and TD Points through the TD Travel Rewards Program, into funds for tuition, meal plans, residence fees and even to pay back student loans in Ontario and Alberta at over 85 Participating Institutions in Canada.

To learn more about the Program and how it works, visit or contact Suzanne Tyson, Founder and CEO of Higher Ed Points Inc. at 416.551.8941 or by email at


Not Your Parents’ Higher Education

Appendix: Selected verbatim open-ended responses to question on what financial help students need most.

The following are a very small selection of the insightful open-ended responses to our question regarding what type of financial assistance would be of greatest help to students. This was the question:

Take a moment to consider what kind of financial help would be of most value to you (money for rent, food, or is it tuition you could use help with?). Now, imagine you were chatting with someone who wanted to donate some money to help out. If you had that opportunity to tell a prospective donor (corporate or individual) what financial or other help would make the biggest impact for you, what would you say? Please share any thoughts and we’ll pass them along at every opportunity! After all, it takes a village, to raise a mind™


Anything would be helpful honestly! I would even appreciate gift cards to local grocery stores to help pay for food. My part time job during the school year basically only goes towards groceries and any other necessities that I need. Money is tough for every aspect of attending university! You need money every month to pay for rent and food, and the beginning of each term you need to pay for tuition. I don’t have a preference of what I would ask for specifically as I would appreciate money to help me with anything, but money for tuition or rent would be the most helpful in my situation since I have food covered by my job.

Tuition for most low income students is covered by government loans. The problem is rent and food expenses. Many students end up living in terrible housing and eating meals completely lacking in any real nutrition simply because they can’t afford the alternative. This of course greatly impacts not only their academic performance, but also the educational experience in general. What good is attending lectures when the meals I eat cannot sustain me enough to focus, participate and engage the material?

Rent subsidies for students who have no choice but to live away from home to attend school. Also, it would be nice if scholarships, etc. gave initiative such as working to pay for schooling more credit. It seems most of the scholarship money goes to people who don’t need it the most. If I had more time to volunteer, etc. I would. I had to spend most of my spare time in high school (and now) working to pay my living and school expenses so could not take part in all the over-the-top expectations of most scholarship requirements. It’s the students from the wealthier families who do all the things the scholarships are looking for, and ironically, they aren’t the ones who need the help the most!

I need help in any area I can get help with, I work a part time job just so I can pay my rent, OSAP gives me a lot of money because my parents do not have high paying jobs and were never able to save for me because they didn’t have the money. OSAP covers my tuition but I still need to work every summer and part time every semester so I can afford somewhere to live and so I can eat, it’s a lot to manage in the school year because I also want to get good grades.

Tuition: my tuition is over $12,000 a year. Working full time during the summer months doesn’t cover my tuition costs, especially if I am only being paid minimum wage. Last summer I was fortunate enough to work in my industry at a position that paid double minimum wage. Even then I could not cover my cost of tuition after deducting my cost of rent for the summer term. I love my program but it is not a program that individuals can go into without accumulating debt.

Financial help for rent would be the most valuable to me for a few reasons. It’s very very difficult to find decent places for a good price especially near the school. In this economy, even places that are further away cost approximately the same. Furthermore, there are other bills associated with housing arrangements such as hydro, internet etc. Without a place to live, I wouldn’t be able to go to school here and I’d be missing out on this fantastic opportunity. Because I spend my time studying rather than socializing, my options for roommates are limited and having less roommates increases the price of rent. My tuition is covered by government loans, I pay for food with money from my part- time job but every month it is such a struggle to come up with my rent for a small and old apartment filled with silverfish. I am not complaining, I’m very grateful to have a roof over my head because without a place to live school wouldn’t be an option and I’d be putting myself in danger. As a full-time student in the sciences, a full-time job is not an option and my parents can’t really help me either. It would be such a relief to know that next month I am able to pay for my rent and am guaranteed a place to live.

The type of financial help that would be most value to me would be money to cover tuition or rent, so I have less debt to pay off once I graduate. I am 20 years old, with over 20 thousand dollars in debt, I pay for everything by myself, no parental help. Just help by OSAP, bursary and a job, any contribution would help!

I usually never enter for contests like this, I know how unlikely it is to win. Recently I’ve had my hours at work cut and I have to take summer school which means even more money that will turn into debt I have to carry around for years. There is really no dollar amount that I could ask of someone, at this point anything would help since my RESP has run out and I am not eligible for a bank loan. Anywhere from $100-$1000 dollars would make me a very grateful person because it would ease some stress about how I will be paying for my next set of courses and text books. Thank you for opening up opportunities like this for people like myself who could really use some assistance. It is always appreciated.

Any funding that can be provided would be a huge help either for tuition or living expenses, it would take a lot of stress off making it easier to focus on my studies and not always worrying about my debt growing.

The biggest impact a financial donation would make for most students would be to help them out in upper years. There are plenty of scholarship offers for first year and plenty of time to apply and it is easier to attain higher marks in high school. Once you are in a tough program in university (engineering physics and management), attaining high marks is not always easy for the average student, but it does not mean that the average student will not become a successful, highly valued employee of any company out there after graduation. But it is very difficult for the average student to find further scholarship opportunities or even co-op opportunities when competing with students with high marks.

Being a student and knowing how hard my family struggles to help me and my siblings, any amount of money would be a help to me as I struggle with most every aspect of being a student. My stress about money and knowing that my parents are doing their very best and are often left without because of me and my siblings, money for rent and food as well paying back my student loans cause they are so high would be the hugest help at this time of my life. My stress brings on anxiety and depression (which I have struggled with for a few years now) and I know that any amount would alleviate these stresses. Thank you sincerely!

Money for food or rent would be most helpful. I know a lot of fellow students go a day or more without eating because they can’t afford food and rent or other necessities.

I am attending school part time because I am unable to afford full time school. Because of this I miss out on a lot of financial funding, but I can’t risk applying for full time if I don’t have the money guaranteed. I work two jobs, one at minimum wage and the other at $20/hr. I average about 35 hours a week and my school is constantly screaming at me for money I owe them. My family is BELOW the poverty line due to the current state of the economy; we can’t even pay our bills. We’ve very nearly lost our house and it’s an hour away from my school. Transportation costs are still cheaper than getting my own place. Receiving any money at all would be the greatest help to pay for food, gas, and parking not to mention the fact that I still have school on top of that.

Money for rent would definitely have the biggest impact. But so would a better paying part time job. It is so hard to find work here in Ottawa. And living so far from my hometown can be difficult enough. Independence as a well-off adult can be hard, but it’s nothing compared to the struggle of a student who can barely afford to live, and has no family financial support.

Books are one of the most expensive things I have to pay for. Also other supplies like scrubs, shoes, stethoscope, lab kits etc


The financial help that would be most valuable to me would be money for tuition and gas. I will be living at home to cut on costs of rent, groceries, utilities etc. That being said I live in a small town that is over an hour away from the school I will be attending so gas money will add up. If I had to discuss my financials with a prospective donor, Money for tuition and books would be most appreciated. Gas cards and cards for food (I.e. Starbucks, Tim Hortons, Subway, McDonalds etc) would also come in handy. I will be away from home so often will be grabbing snacks and constantly filling up with gas. I will also have a car payment to take care of so I can get to school so any help with that would be beneficial to me and my situation.

Scholarship money to pay for housing and food. Scholarship money based not just on marks.

Rent was as expensive as the tuition but there are no grants for that. There is also no grant for the food, the computer and internet needed (since most assignments must be submitted electronically), the clothing (boots and coats for our Canadian winters) which still is not cheap, the bills (phone, electricity, gas, water bills) which still need to be paid and for which students are not exempt. It takes a village to raise a mind but unfortunately living in this village can be expensive.


Thank you for reading! We appreciate your interest in helping to find new funds for students pursuing higher education.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Chris Wilkins at and/or Suzanne Tyson at if you have ideas on how else we can help….or, even better, if you’d like to donate some funds!

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