Navigating Canada’s complex terrain of student financial assistance

July 17, 2014

OTTAWA—Student aid systems in Canada are intricate, elaborate, and, in many cases, thoroughly unmanageable, says a study released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

The study, It’s Complicated: An Interprovincial Comparison of Student Financial Aid, examines and compares how each province and territory has constructed their student financial aid systems and finds extensive variation exists between how eligibility for aid is determined, and to whom specific programs are targeted.

“The combination of federal, provincial, and joint administered student financial aid programs are inherently complex, lack transparency, and thus remain removed from public scrutiny and discussion,” says Jordan MacLaren, author of the study.

“The piecemeal, patchwork systems of intertwined and separate student aid programs across the country do little to guarantee equity to students, regardless of location and income level, and furthermore are complex to the point of being nonsensical.”

The study ranks the complexity of student aid eligibility in each province and territory based on the number of steps and outcomes possible for a simple, undergraduate application. Ontario has by far the most complicated student aid system, with a score of 94. Alberta is next, with 59. Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories have the least complicated systems, with scores of 26, 18, and 17, respectively.

“What is accomplished—and who is marginalized—by implementing and maintaining these differing and complicated systems? If there are benefits, are they worth the complexity, the duplication in administrative costs, the cost of development, evaluation and discontinuation of ever-changing programs, and the obvious inequity in eligibility that is created and reinforced for individual students and families across the country?” asks Erika Shaker, Education Director with the CCPA.

Among the study’s key findings:

  • Significant inequities exist in the amount of resources made available to students, based on province or territory of residence.
  • Differences in tuition fees between provinces are the greatest factor in determining the cost of education and therefore have a great impact on the amount of debt a student may accumulate.
  • Provincial grant programs, whether needs-based or universal, are the largest contributor to debt reduction.

“There are, in many cases, significant sums of public money being spent on an increasingly individualized system of financing higher education; however, as a whole, this current system does little to ensure accessibility or transparency,” concludes MacLaren.


It’s Complicated: An Interprovincial Comparison of Student Financial Aid is available on the CCPA website:

For more information contact Kerri-Anne Finn, CCPA Senior Communications Officer, at 613-563-1341 x306.