Tuition not a deterent, study finds

Feb 20, 2003, vol. 26, no. 4
By Howard Fluxgold

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A tuition fee hike of 30 per cent instituted last year at SFU does not appear to have had a negative impact on student accessibility, according to studies submitted to the board of governors in January.

A comparative study of the family income of students who entered four B.C. universities in the fall of 2000, 2001 and 2002, found there is “no noticeable difference in distribution,” notes Walter Wattamaniuk, SFU's director of analytical studies. “Students were coming from the same set of family incomes in all three years.”

The study of family incomes, which matched postal codes of students' home addresses with Statistics Canada data on median family incomes from the postal code area, will be done on an annual basis “to see if there is a noticeable distribution shift,” says Wattamaniuk.

Another study of SFU students focuses on internal measures in an attempt to determine the effects of the rise in tuition.

It found, for example, that student retention rates remain unchanged. Retention rates are a measure of the number of students who were enrolled in the spring semester in 2002 who did not complete their degree and enrolled in the fall of the same year.

Student course loads also remained unchanged and in fact, increased somewhat after the fee hike. “You would expect that if fees become a real burden, students might begin to lighten up on their course load,” explains Wattamaniuk. “But it hasn't changed.”

The proportion of offers of admission that were accepted “shot up,” he notes, as did the proportion of students who accepted admission offers and actually enrolled last fall. “So there is nothing in our internal data that says that the tuition fees imposed last fall have affected student enrollment patterns,” he points out.

If tuition fees were becoming a burden, Wattamaniuk theorizes, the number of students applying for bursaries should increase. However, the proportion of the student population applying for bursaries in the fall of 2002 remained unchanged. While the assessed need of recipients changed, the university more than met the need, likely because 25 per cent of the tuition increase went to expand the scholarship and bursary fund.

While the last tuition increase may not have had a significant impact on accessibility, the university is aware that continued annual increases will eventually take a toll.

John Waterhouse, VP-academic, says, “B.C. tuition was significantly below the national average and continues to be so. I think that we are seeing tuition adjustments within a range that probably will not have a significant impact on accessibility. However, if this were to continue for some time, if we were to get outside that range of acceptability, we would see some negative affects and we certainly would not want to be there.”

Waterhouse also says that increasing enrollments and “marginally decreasing resources make it clear that the province's per capita grant is going down. We have only two main sources of income - grants and fees.”

The provincial government allowed B.C. universities to determine their own tuition fees starting in the fall of 2002 after a five-year freeze. SFU's board of governors approved a 30 per cent increase bringing fees for the 2002-03 school year to $2,853 for a basic arts or science degree. This is well below the national average of about $4,000.

The board will make a decision on tuition fees for 2003-2004 at its meeting in March. Last year it implemented a strategy to bring fees in line with the national average.

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