Paying for University 101

By Schlesinger, Joel | Winnipeg Free Press, August 25, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Paying for University 101

Schlesinger, Joel, Winnipeg Free Press

U of W pilot program to give students a degree of financial knowledge

Priscilla Maud has learned a lot at university -- more than just what she's picked up in class.

The fourth-year double major in aboriginal governance and conflict resolution studies enrolled at the University of Winnipeg in 2008.

"I wasn't knowledgeable about the history," says the 38-year-old single mother of four daughters ranging in age from four to 18.

"I didn't feel I knew enough to contribute to the conversation when it came to politics."

She feels much more confident in a discussion about politics these days, but she's also more adept at balancing a budget, cutting costs and finding extra money here and there to get through the school year.

"I think I've tapped into a few good years of finding good resources," she says.

Part of her cost of schooling is covered by her band, Sknownan First Nation, about 350 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. She also has two types of loans with her financial institution and receives Manitoba Student Aid (government-sponsored student loan).

Her advice to aspiring students: Apply for as many bursaries and scholarships as you can.

"There's a lot of work involved in finding money for scholarships and bursaries," she says, adding one application takes about 12 hours. "You have to pay to get those transcripts and then get the references, and you have to be able to manage to work on that on top of your studies and taking care of your family."

But it has been worth the effort. Maud has received about $30,000 in scholarships and grants over three years of study.

While she is well-versed in the trials and tribulations of financing a university degree, many other students often struggle to strike a balance between studies and managing their money.

They often can overlook available financial supports beyond student loans, says Kam Holland, director of awards and financial aid for student services at the University of Winnipeg.

"There is a lot of misguided thinking among students that if you don't get a scholarship, it's not worth applying for anything," says Holland, whose department helps students navigate financial aid.

Each year at the U of W, students apply for and receive more than $7 million in student loans and about $3.2 million in scholarships and bursaries.

Holland has been working at the U of W for about a year, having previously worked at York University in Toronto.

There, too, students often overlooked grants and other financial assistance available to them, including a scholarship for $45,000.

"Out of 50,000 undergrads at York, five people applied for that scholarship," Holland says.

Bursaries and scholarships likely will be a topic in a U of W pilot program this fall. It aims to upgrade students' financial literacy.

The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC), the federal department responsible for promoting financial literacy, developed the program, called Financial Basics. Menno Simons College economics and international development studies professor Jerry Buckland will teach each of the three one-day, four-hour courses during the fall term.

Students who sign up will get $50 and a free meal.

"Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of interest from young people to manage their money, even though they don't have much of it," Holland says.

The pilot program is a new direction for the university; an effort to address the reality students are faced with more complex financial decisions than in years past -- largely the result of increasing tuition, books and housing costs.

"In general, there has been an increased awareness of the responsibility of universities and colleges to provide financial literacy to students," Holland says.

"We wanted to sit down with students and say, 'This is real. This is how much school will cost.' "

The average cost, including tuition, books and living expenses, for a four-year degree is more than $32,000 at the U of W.

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