10 Millennials Across Canada Reveal How Much Student Debt They *Really* Have

“Imagine waking up and all of a sudden having $100,000 hanging over your head?”

Three photos of women on a purple background
(Photo: Collage by Leo Tapel)

For Ontarians voting in the provincial election on June 7, the New Democrats and the Greens are the only parties who are proposing plans to help with student debt; the Liberal Party has already enacted OSAP grants for lower-income people as part of its 2018 budget and has plans to further reduce costs over time. Learn more about where each of Ontario’s major political parties stands on relieving student debt here.   

Getting an education has never been more expensive—and it’s putting students in serious debt.

Today, tuition fees in Canada are at an all-time high. According to Statistics Canada, the average tuition for an undergrad degree is $6,500 a year—and that’s before the added costs of books, school supplies and residence (programs like dentistry can cost over $22,000 a year). And as tuition climbs, government funding has been cut, making post-secondary institutions increasingly privatized. This has shifted the cost of university and college from a federal responsibility onto the backs of students, says Charlotte Kiddell, the national deputy chairperson at the Canadian Federation of Student (CFS).

Kiddell explains that high post-secondary costs are not only burdening students, but are also perpetuating cycles of marginalization and poverty. “The most marginalized are unable to access this education that is said to be essential to having a comfortable life,” she says, pointing to the fact that low-income students end up paying more for their degree because of the interest that accumulates from student loans.

Despite the financial obstacles of going to school, an estimated 70 percent of jobs in the new economy will require post-secondary education, according to research from the government of Canada. This means if you want to secure a job, chances are you’ll need to pay for a pricey degree first. So how are Canadian students dealing with the high-costs of school and subsequent debt? Working multiple jobs, sacrificing study time and grades, according to these 10 millennials. Here’s how much money they owe, and how they’re coping with it.

Parvin Sedighi, 22, is earning her bachelor of arts at MacEwan University in Edmonton. By the time she graduates in 2020, she expects she’ll have $10,000-$15,000 in debt

A woman named Parvin standing in a garden smiling wearing a blue shirt
(Photo: Students’ Association of MacEwan University)

“I’m a part-time political science student because right now, I’m taking time off in the middle of my degree to work. I’m working a full-time job because without that, I would graduate with much more debt. I’ll be doing this next year as well, and hopefully resuming full-time studies the year after.

Nobody else in my family has gone to university. As a first-generation student, I always had the idea that I would come in, do four years, then move on. There’s been challenges meeting that trajectory. I have plans to do additional schooling after my undergrad, and I know I’ll have to take on additional debt to do the professional program I want to do. There’s a lot of anxiety around compounding debt and whether I will end up at grad school or law school. That’s one the one of the worries I think about almost on a daily basis when I’m considering future plans.

I’m not someone who likes to be in debt. It’s something that’s very hard to plan around and it makes things a lot more unstable. [If my student debt were relieved], it would open a lot of doors in terms of opportunities. Sometimes in school there are opportunities to go abroad and partake in internships that aren’t paid. I can’t do those, but I would love to explore academics beyond the classroom. It would help me to have a range of experiences.”

Devina Sirota, 28, is studying psychology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. She will graduate in 2020 and has $20,000 of debt

A woman named Devina smiling with long dark hair
(Photo: Courtesy of Devina Sirota)

“I grew up in a single-parent household: my father lived in B.C. and he never paid child support, so I always knew that going to school wasn’t really an option for me. I actually dropped out of high school because I thought, I’m not going to university, so what’s the point? For about 10 years, I worked minimum-wage jobs until I realized I wanted to go back and finish grade 12. I did, and I did really well—which was surprising because in high school I barely passed. So once I finished high school, I was like, Wow, I wonder what else I could do?

I knew student loans would be the only option if I wanted to go back to school, but I just loved learning so I knew it was a sacrifice I had to make. The student loans have helped me get going, but as I got into university, things added up. Statistically, I’ve learned that people like me—who grew up in poverty and single-income households—don’t have as good of a chance pursuing education. I never thought I would have a passion for biology and psychology; you have to go to school to figure that out. But many people aren’t given the chance to discover that.”

Annie Beach, 20, is earning her bachelor of fine art at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. She will graduate in 2020, and currently has $2,000 in debt

A woman named Annie standing in a white t-shirt
(Photo: Courtesy of Annie Beach )

“I’m from Peguis First Nation and I’ve been getting funding from my band office; they help cover some of the costs of tuition as well as a monthly allowance. I’m very lucky and fortunate, but considering [this country’s history] it comes at a cost.

I think there are a lot of misconceptions—especially with Indigenous students in Canada—that we get handouts for post-secondary education. There’s not just free money being given away. People would say [to me], ‘Oh, you don’t have to worry about paying for school; it’s all free for you.’ That’s a huge misconception—and it sucks.

There’s a strict process [for Indigenous students], and I have to have official band treaty. If I didn’t have a treaty card, I wouldn’t be able to apply for post-secondary student benefits. In my first year [of school], I didn’t have my status card, so I paid for university on my own with some help from my parents. Now, every year to keep my benefits, I have to write an application, keep my grades up, keep tabs with the educational director and give them an update on my transcript. I also have to let them know what my future plans are.

The band office provides cheques that help with rent and some tuition. It’s about $100 per course, which helps with supplies and textbooks. It’s helpful, but some classes require $200 to $300 of textbooks and supplies, so at times it can be tough. If you want extra benefits, you need to take a minimum of four courses. Meaning if you had to work part-time, or were only taking two classes as a single parent, you wouldn’t get that extra monthly allowance. If I wanted to afford groceries and rent, I’d have to take an extra course. It can be a lot. Students want to have a life, too. If I didn’t have debt, I wouldn’t have to save up from my part-time job just to buy groceries or clothes.”

Kym Sweeny, 29, is studying law at Dalhousie Law School. She graduated in 2017 with $223,000 in debt

A photo of a woman named Kym and her child smiling
(Kym and her child. Photo: Courtesy of Kym Sweeny)

“I have an undergrad, a master’s, and a law degree, all of which I got while being a single mother. I’m on repayment assistance program because of how little I make right now, and I have a dependant, my seven-year-old child, Elliott. I used to drive a very old car that died last year, and I couldn’t afford to buy another one, but my community did a fundraiser to get us money for a new car. Otherwise, I would not have access to a vehicle—which is tough when you’re a commuting single mom.

I’m articling before I can be a lawyer, and I actually had to file for bankruptcy last November. Filing for bankruptcy affects your life in so many ways. I can’t have credit cards, which makes it difficult to book travel and see my family. I also won’t be able to buy a home for seven years, which is something I would like to do for my kid—but that’s a stability we don’t have.

When I filed for bankruptcy, it really affected my mental health, too. I ended up having a bad depressive episode and I had to take two months off work. Through therapy, I identified that my personal stress was very much attributed to my financial stress. I’m almost about to be discharged from bankruptcy, which means some of the worst is over. I’m not currently paying anything back, but I have to check in with the National Student Loan Service Centre every six months to update them on what I’m earning. If my earnings go up, my payments will start going up, too.”

Tiffany Gordon, 29, is in her second year of her PhD in philosophy at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She has $20,000 of debt

A woman named Tiffany smiling in a black blazer
(Photo: Courtesy of Tiffany Gordon)

“If you think education is important, and if your parents aren’t able to afford it, you find a way to pay it yourself. I found a way to pay for three degrees through loans, OSAP and a line of credit. Now in my PhD, I also have a fellowship. As part of my fellowship, I’m a teaching assistant (TA) and I also work with student unions and the writing centre. I work in the summer, too.

The cost of paying for school means having very little social life, no vacations, and always working. I’ve always worked to pay for school, even during my undergrad and master’s. With OSAP, I’m not paying back any of my debt yet, but I still work to pay off my other debt, such as my line of credit. All the things you might see people doing during school breaks, like vacations, well I’m working to pay for school. Between school and work, there’s not a lot of time to do anything else. It’s fine because I’m willing to make that sacrifice, but there’s always a sacrifice.

It’s not cheap to be educated. Everyone I know has had to work and balance school. It seems like if you don’t have as much time to study, you don’t get as many scholarships, because instead of dedicating 40 hours a week to getting good grades, you’re probably dedicating 20 because you have to work the other 20 hours. As I continue my education and look back at all those hours I wasn’t studying, I think I would have been able to do better academically—which would mean better prospects for the future. It definitely compounds over time.”

Rizza Umali, 23, is in her second year of her master’s degree in medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. As an international student, she can’t access Canadian student loans and has mounting private debt

A woman named Rizza wearing a t-shirt that says 'education is a right'
(Photo: Daniel Smith)

“I’m the first person in my family to go to university. I’m an international student originally from the Philippines, but I grew up in United Arab Emirates, where tuition is extremely expensive. I came to Newfoundland to start my university studies in 2012. My parents took on a lot of private debt to send me here. In terms of numbers, I don’t even know anymore due to the fact interest has gone up over the past few years. Newfoundland was the only chance for me to obtain any post-secondary degree that I could afford.

There aren’t really any economic opportunities in the Philippines, and in a competitive global market, a degree from the West is still seen as being very prestigious. But I’m still worried about job prospects. In order to pay off this debt, I need to get a job right away. Newfoundland and Labrador has a shrinking and aging population right now, and a lot of people—including myself—want to stay here, but end up leaving because there’s no opportunities. There’s a lot of pressure on me, as a daughter of immigrants, to pull my family out of poverty.”

Whitney Hodgins, 24, is earning a double major in anthropology and history at Brandon University in Brandon, Manitoba. She will graduate in 2020 and currently has $1,100 in debt

A woman named Whitney posing in a black jacket
(Photo: Courtesy of Whitney Hodgins)

“Having to worry about paying back this debt—and making sure I have a roof over my head—has affected my health and my grades. I wouldn’t have as much anxiety and my mental health wouldn’t be declining as rapidly as it is [if I didn’t have the debt]. I have a disability on top of my mental health [issues], and my mental health would definitely improve if the debt wasn’t there.

I’ve been working as the Accessibilities Director for the Brandon University Students’ Union and working part-time at two other jobs. I’ve been chipping away at my debt, but with all my housing, tuition, accessibility needs and services, if I hadn’t been working, I could hypothetically owe $30,000-$40,000.”

Heba Shamsi, 26, is studying to become a doctor at McMaster School of Medicine in Hamilton, Ont. She is graduating this year with $100,000-$110,000 of debt

A woman named Heba wearing a green shirt smiling
(Photo: Hala Shamsi)

“My situation is pretty common. Most medical students do not work when they’re in school, so our main source of income is through a line of credit. Banks give out these massive loans because they’re aware that physicians will be able to pay them back—that’s the expectation, anyway.

I don’t think people in Canada care about physicians speaking out about our income and debt because they think, You guys make so much money in the end anyway. But debt is a very real issue we face as residents when we start our lives. After I graduate in June, my debt will become repayable. That’s going to be a big transition. Most first-year [medical] residents make about $57,000-$60,000 a year. If I had no debt, instead of thinking about paying off my loans for the next 10 years, I would be able to invest in a home—but I don’t even think about that; my financial situation is going to be negative for a long time. Everything is stacked against this massive line of credit.

I try not to spend money on myself and only cover the necessities. When I use my line of credit, it weighs heavily [on me] because there’s interest every month. Even though I didn’t have an income in medical school, I still pay interest on my line of credit, which is a couple hundred dollars a month.

On top of my monthly interest payments, I’m also paying loan insurance. I got life insurance on my debt because I’ve thought if something were to happen to me, who would that fall to? I would never want this burden falling onto anybody else. Imagine waking up and all of a sudden having $100,000 hanging over your head?”

Alexandria DeSantis-Smith, 26, is studying to become a dentist at the University of Detroit Mercy. By the time she graduates in 2021, she’ll have $250,000 in debt

A woman named Alex smiling with long dark hair
(Photo: Courtesy of Alex DeSantis-Smith)

“I teach anatomy at my school and worked as a tutor throughout undergrad, so all my debt is from this dental program. I’m lucky because I am an only child and I have two working parents, but my program is very expensive. Both my parents worked in credit so they taught me how to manage debt—but not everybody gets to learn financial literacy.

I cross the border from Windsor to Detroit every day so toll expenses add up. And the U.S. exchange rate is nasty. University has always been a place of higher of learning, but now it’s becoming this institutionalized area where people are earning degrees because they need to get a job. Degrees have become something people need, rather than pursue because of a thirst for learning.

A few generations ago, there was this dream where you could own a house and have your life ready for children [when you graduated school]. It’s stressful for both my partner (who is in medical school) and I to be in professional programs because our debt will extend into the future—the time you start thinking about having kids and getting married. In dentistry, there’s a fear of not making enough money to [pay back loans]. Trying to plan anything in the future is really hard.”

Shifrah Gadamsetti, 25, is finishing up her sociology degree with a minor in women’s studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary. She has close to $50,000 in debt

A woman named Shifrah smiling in a floral print blouse
(Photo: Students Association of Mount Royal University)

“The majority of my debt comes from my first degree: a bachelor of nursing. I was 16 when I started university, so my ability to find gainful employment at that point wasn’t high. That, coupled with fact that nursing is one of those professional designations that requires a lot of practicum hours on top of instructional hours, the opportunity to work was limited. With a professional degree there are lots of unlisted costs, like lab supplies. Plus, your courses turn over every six weeks instead of every 12, so you have double the textbooks to buy. Having a car was also critical for commuting. Everything just racked up—even though I did everything to offset the costs including living at home.

I lost out on $18,000 over the last nine years because I didn’t know I could apply for a disability grant for having ADHD and Type 1 Diabetes. The current Liberal government has raised the student debt threshold so now you don’t have to pay back your loans until you’re making $25,000 or more per year. But the cost of living varies across the country. In smaller towns, your earning potential is skewed depending on what opportunities are available to you. And in places where people may be making more money, the cost of living is more. Is $25,000 really enough to cover rent, cost of living, and then student loans? I think the threshold is a great idea, but we need to work at tweaking them, like a sliding scale. Since I missed out on my grants, I now work to help make people aware these programs exist.

Immediately out of the gate, I can see the difference in quality of life in my colleagues from nursing school between those who graduated with debt and those who didn’t. I have friends who work above and beyond appropriate amounts of overtime—even though they’re exhausted—just so they can pay off more debt. People who don’t have debt have the freedom to get the next chapter of their life started.

Debt is a constant worry, but because I’m still in school, the full impact hasn’t hit me. I’ve put a lot of time and effort building my skill set over my last two degrees and I don’t want to waste that.”


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