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Student Debt
Advice from Canadian students who studied in the United States.

Many students’ joy at graduating with their bachelors degrees is tempered by tens of thousands of dollars of debt, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Sometimes you have to make sacrifices"…

Gerta Kits never had any student debt. “I paid for my undergrad partly myself by working full-time in the summer and a few hours a week during the year, got several small scholarships, and my parents made up the difference,” says Kits, a PhD student at the University of Alberta and a graduate of The King’s University College in Edmonton. Because of her high undergraduate grades, her master’s degree and doctoral education have been fully funded by scholarships from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada.

Even some Canadians who studied in the United States, where schools are generally more expensive, have managed to avoid major debt.

“I started saving for college when I was in Grade 8,” says Emily Clarke, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Ill. “I have three sisters and knew my parents would not be able to pay for all of us. I figured if I could pay for myself, it would relieve some of the burden. I put money into a savings account and trusted that God would make it stretch. He did.”

Though Clarke chose Moody because it offered a program in electronic media and ministry, there was another benefit that helped keep her debt-free: Moody is in the enviable position of having donors who pay for student tuition.

“Moody is unique because it is tuition-paid,” explains Clarke, who worked parttime during school to help cover her $11,000 annual living costs. “The screening process is intense; only about 400 students are admitted every year. For most schools in the States, it will cost a lot more.”

Karen Bokma can attest to that. “The bigger issue for me wasn’t the actual tuition because I got a good scholarship and some financial aid. But when I was going to school, the exchange rate was in the mid- to low- 60s,” recalls Bokma, who graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2002. “What it added up to was often between $1.45 to $1.55 CDN for $1 US.”

A year’s tuition at a Canadian school ranges from $2,500 to $13,000, which does not include accommodation, food and other living costs. In the United States, tuition might range from $8,000 to $30,000 per year.

Despite the higher costs of attending university in the United States, Canadian students still choose American schools for different reasons, whether it’s for campus size, reputation or the type of academic programs they offer.

Ashley Tamminga took a gap year prior to studying medieval European history at Calvin College to save for tuition and living expenses, but two car accidents during that same year absorbed most of her savings.

Though her parents were financially capable of assisting with her education costs, Tamminga never expected it.

“I got a lot of OSAP [Ontario Student Assistance Program], and I got money from [the] Christian Economic Assistance Fund (CEAF),” explains Tamminga, who graduated in 2007. CEAF is a non-profit organization that loans money to Ontario residents in need of financial support for Christian education, including day school and university.

But when her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it became nearly impossible for Tamminga’s parents to help with her education. “I did a lot of crying at the financial aid office,” she recalls. “It’s really unfair that I couldn’t get financial aid. I asked if it’s just assumed that parents are paying for their kids’ university education. They said ‘Yes it is, at least at this school. It’s a parent’s job.’ ”

Tamminga finally got some surprising good news when she finished Calvin. CEAF forgave 95 per cent of what she’d borrowed.

“I felt like jumping up and down,” she remembers. “It felt like huge grace, because at the same time I was confronting the OSAP loan, which was about the same as what CEAF had given me. So to have 50 per cent of my total debt forgiven felt pretty great.”

First-hand advice “If I could change one thing about the financial landscape of my university years, I would have been less anxious about money,” says Tamminga. “I did lay awake many a night worrying about how to make my next rent payment or tuition installment, but every time I hit rock bottom something miraculous happened.

But then again, I wouldn’t have been aware of these blessings if I hadn’t been so desperate in the first place.”

“Apply for as many scholarships and bursaries as possible,” Kits recommends. “High grades do help with the financial side of things, so do your best. Plan to work full-time in the summer. And you obviously shouldn’t choose what school to go to based on tuition, but if you can go to a less expensive one that’s just as good, why not?”

“Be wise with your money,” advises Clarke. “Sometimes you have to make sacrifices. Occasionally you have to say ”no” to going out for dinner or to buying something new. You can have fun, but spend with moderation. I am glad that I spent a few years being wise rather than spending two to five years paying off student loans. Now the money that I have is mine to spend where I want it.”

Bokma worked 25 hours a week through her undergraduate career, but still won’t have her student debt paid off until 2011, nine years after graduation. “I wish I would have had more saved, but I’m not actually sure that would have been an option,” she says. “I don’t regret the student loans I took out to pay for school.

Would I have loved to do it all debt-free?

Absolutely. But I wouldn’t have been able to afford university without debt, so I look at it as the better option.”

Stephanie Tombari of Burlington, Ontario, is a contributing writer at Faith Today. 

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2010.

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