Looking back at the Cost of University Education in Canada

Changing cost of education in Canada

From sea-to-sea-to-sea, Canada is home to a bevy of beautiful college and university campuses, filled with bright minds, big ideas, and dreams waiting to be realized.  Over time, access to post-secondary education has gone from being the exclusive domain of the church and wealthy citizens, to serving over half of our population – the highest rate amongst the OECD countries!

Reaching higher education isn’t always easy and we all know that the cost of tuition isn’t cheap. However, it is interesting to look at how much tuition once cost and consider how much it may be in the future.

A Brief Timeline of University Education in Canada

For much of Canadian history, the equivalent of today’s vocational college programs were not formalized, nor did careers require post-secondary education in the modern sense of the term.  Consequently, the following facts are pulled from university-only statistics.

  • 1802

    King’s College, which opened in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1789, receives authority to grant degrees by the British Colonial Government. Over the next 18 years, King’s would graduate 71 students.  At the time, tuition was £4, roughly equivalent to $230 in today’s dollars.

  • 1881

    Tuition at Western University was $15 and board was $165 (around $250 and $2,690 respectively in modern times)!

  • 1919

    20 Canadian universities are now up and running with a total government endowment of $22 million.

  • 1932

    The University of Alberta charges $116 for undergraduate tuition and $189 for room and board.

  • 1940-70

    Governments influenced by Keynesian economics pushed large amounts of money into university endowments and tuition fees rose at a rate close to, or even below general inflation (even going so far as to offer free tuition and board to many soldiers at the close of WWII).

  • 1976

    The Canadian government signed on to the United Nations’ Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights with the intent of introducing free tuition. Government studies showed that a 6% income tax increase would be the price tag on free tuition.

  • 1987-2007

    “Compulsory fees” (aka – not tuition, but money that most students must pay at the same time as tuition). These fees differ from school to school but compulsory fees generally cover costs such as student associations, athletics, or health services.

Comparing Apples to Apples

While it is very difficult to truly compare costs across eras, these trends are nothing if not eye-opening.  It is tough to dismiss the fact that between 1813 and 2013, undergraduate fees increased in inflation-adjusted dollars roughly 24 times! (From $236 to $5,720.)

There are many reasons for these escalating tuition costs, including the cost of research at Canada’s universities, and significant decreases in government endowments.

Where Do We Go From Here

Since Confederation the number of Canadians attending university has increased by 1,000 times – and that’s not even taking into consideration the large number of students attending non-university post-secondary education in Canada today!

While it might be nice to look back on “the good old days” of Canadian tuition, it’s important to plan for the expected cost of $157,000 for a 4-year university program in the year 2035 according to C.S.T. Consultants Inc.  Fortunately, in order to address these rising costs, the Canadian government has provided us with a valuable tool in the form of the Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP).

The federal government and some provinces will add grants to RESPs, which is a key incentive to saving in this special account. These additional dollars are just some of the benefits of saving with an RESP.

It has never been more popular (and many would say “essential”) to pursue further schooling after high school in Canada.  However, it is interesting to consider just how we got where we are today, and to note that we might be putting ourselves in some pretty dire straits if we don’t plan for the future.

Kyle Prevost

Kyle is a teacher by day and personal finance blogger by night. When he isn't limping up and down a basketball court, you can catch him on his soapbox at Birtle Collegiate or providing the answers to Gen Y’s questions over at YoungandThrifty.ca and MyUniversityMoney.com. He is also the co-author of a critically-acclaimed book for Canadian students: More Money for Beer and Textbooks and has written for several of Canada's premier publications including the National Post, Globe and Mail, and Metro News.

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