Will Colleges and Universities Lower Tuition?

By Logan Bright Modified on June 01, 2020

With so many programs going online, should schools reduce the amount students have to pay?

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A school administrator crunches the numbers to determine whether tuition can be cut. It cannot.

Full-time online education wasn't what most students bargained for this year, but we've pulled together to face the pandemic and save what we could of the school year. Now, we're looking ahead to September, and the return to campus — or, more likely, a return to our computer screens.

The federal government has released a support plan for domestic students, the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB), which runs until August. You can apply for it here through the summer. There's also the Canada Student Grant for full-time students and part-time students — more on this later.

Still, many students have called for schools to reduce tuition fees for September classes, which for most students, will be almost entirely online. Is this fair? And will schools do so?

Setting tuition fees

Tuition fees are typically set by provincial governments, not schools themselves. The formula is meant to account primarily for operating costs, which are mostly paid for with tuition. For example, in October 2019, the Ontario government announced a plan to reduce tuition by 10%, which was expected to mean a budget reduction of $250 million. Given the scope of the current crisis, you can imagine how badly budgets have been hit now.

This isn't always the case, though. Some schools have the power to change their fees directly. In May 2020, in response to the pandemic, the University of Manitoba announced plans to raise tuition by 3.75%. Enrolment numbers are shaky this year, with so much uncertainty, so the school's doing what it can to be ready for the new semester.

Others, like Dalhousie University, the University of Alberta, and the University of Calgary, are following suit, raising tuition from between 5 and 7 percent. Schools are facing shortfalls due to reduced international student enrolment: international students typically pay fees two or three times higher than domestic students. In many cases, international tuition is going up, too. With fewer students coming from abroad to study, schools have turned to domestic fees to shore up budgets. Many schools face pressure from provincial governments, themselves feeling a money squeeze right now.

Schools' costs

One of the main arguments against reducing tuition, beyond the expected budget shortfalls, is the massive investment needed to get online learning going in the first place. Schools are spending hundreds of thousands to facilitate remote education — on digital platforms and training teachers. Collectively, we're trying to learn how to make remote learning work. Even so, it's been a rocky transition!

Most expenses are fixed, unfortunately. Staff salaries and resource fees don't change, and the extra costs of building and delivering remote classes means schools are strapped for cash, too. Some have said they won't reduce tuition because the academic year is still going ahead — just not entirely as planned.

Schools are doing what they can to support students. The University of Manitoba, mentioned above, is setting up a $600,000 student relief fund for those hit hardest by COVID-19. The University of Toronto is doing the same — but these institutions will be hard-pressed to support everyone who's struggling right now.

Students push back

Student unions and associations have circulated petitions calling for reduced tuition at schools across the country. They cite a lack of summer job opportunities and the subpar level of instruction that online education provides. So far, much of the focus has been on the interrupted school year, but now that we're into summer, looking ahead to September, the calls are likely to grow louder.

Many students feel the quality of online education doesn't match their expectations. It's true that learning online is a different experience from gathering in person for lectures and activities. Couple this with a rushed implementation thanks to COVID-19, and it's no wonder so many feel they aren't getting their money's worth.

What can you do?

If you feel tuition should be lowered, you have a few options. Whether you're a current student, or you're starting in September, get in touch with your student union or association — you'll probably find others already working on this issue.

You can also contact your elected representative. While that may not sound fun, writing to officials is one of the best ways to make your voice heard. Because tuition is typically a provincial matter, reach out to your MPP, MHA, MNA or MLA — different designations for reps depending on your province — and share how you feel. Respectful, written letters are best, but tweets and emails can work too. You may not get a response, or at least, the response you want, but you help influence decision makers when you share your voice.

Finding funding

Finally, don't forget to work on your plan to pay for school. CESB runs all summer, and provides $1,250 per month for Canadian students. ScholarshipsCanada.com features thousands of awards from schools across the country to help offset your tuition payments. Further, summer jobs aren't entirely extinct — check out this piece on entry-level jobs in essential services to find openings across the country.

The Canada Student Grant for full-time or part-time students is another good option if you're struggling. It's not available to students in NWT, Nunavut, or Quebec, but otherwise, if you're in financial need at a qualified school, you could receive up to $3,000 per year. You're assessed for this grant when you apply to student aid in your province.

If you're truly stuck, you can reach out to your school directly and ask about financial relief. As mentioned, many schools are establishing COVID-19 relief funds, but to take part, you'll have to make your need heard. So get in touch with the financial aid office and ask how they can help you.


Things are out of whack right now, and we're all feeling it. The last thing you want to worry about is tuition in the fall. Schools and governments alike are building supports to help those who need it most, but this year will be tough. Try to make the most of your summer, by writing your representatives, connecting with your student union, finding a summer job, and applying for grants and scholarships. Easy, right? Well, it's going to take blood, sweat, and tears, but we'll get through this crazy experiment together.


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