I have always found that one of the major divides that gets little-to-no press across post-secondary campuses in Canada is the rural-urban split. It has always amazed me that young adults who lived with their parents and paid no rent would pour so much energy into picketing minor tuition freezes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making sure tuition is fair and that post-secondary pursuits do not exclusively become the domain of the wealthy, but rural kids look at the extra few hundred dollars in tuition and laugh because it is so tiny relative to what they already pay to go to school.
Thank God I’m a Country Boy!
Now I should admit right upfront to being more than a little biased on this issue. I was raised rurally and the majority of my friends were as well, so I’m well versed in the trial and tribulations of rural kids trying to attend school. I’m also attuned to the fact that viewpoints of rural areas get almost no exposure. In fact, on most campuses I’ve seen across Canada, rural concerns come in behind not only urban interests (which one would expect, being media and population centres and all) but also behind the interest of international students as well. I believe rural people in general are less willing to aggressively advocate for themselves, and are a little more intimidated by the world of post-secondary education than other populations are.
All this brings me to a theoretical proposal of helping students from rural areas attend post-secondary education. If one of core values as Canadians is to make higher levels of post-secondary education available to everyone, we aren’t doing a very good job. Tuition is just the beginning of school-related costs if you come from a rural area. I had a great time living on campus, but it cost a decent amount of money for each of the four years that I was there. The students that I taught last spring told me they had to budget over $10,000 per year once their meal plans were factored in, just to live on campus. That’s over twice what tuition was for many of them. There is some money to be saved my living off campus, but now decisions about renting, and 12-month contracts when you’re only in the city for 8 months come into play. Sure there are subletting options and other little tricks that can be used to offset some of the costs, but all of these options incur major headaches for young people who are navigating the adult world for the first time. Rent costs aren’t all rural students have to deal with though. Urban students get access to parent vehicles, they don’t spend money on household costs such as toiletries and one-time expenses like computers and furniture, they don’t have to move back and forth, they have a natural network of connections to pursue jobs with, and several other financial advantages relative to their rural counterparts.
When you add up all of these financial concerns and the inevitable culture shock that many students feel (My very first class at university had over double the amount of students that had went to my high school packed into a lecture theatre … that can be scary for a lot of kids.) you get large dropout rates. Students that do stick with the program often have much higher debt than their urban counterparts who had the legitimate option to live at home during their whole post-secondary journey. Is it any wonder why many rural kids decided that the post-secondary world just isn’t worth it for them?
So is this fair? Should we accept unequal access to education as the price rural people have to pay for living where they do? Manitoba does currently offer a small stipend through student loans to offset rural travelling costs, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to evening things up, nor does it get applied to students who don’t get student loans.
A Ready-Made Solution
I find it interesting that many provinces in Canada can’t find professionals to serve in rural outposts, yet they can’t figure out why. The current solution appears to be to import foreign professionals and sign them to conditional contracts that require them to “serve their time” in a rural town before quickly darting off to a major urban centre. Naturally these recent immigrants have a difficult time integrating into communities that have very little support for immigrants, and they often have no experience in rural settings. Instead, why don’t we make similar offers to rural students contingent on them going back and working rurally for “x” number of years after they are done their schooling? Student loan forgiveness is one idea, but even better would be an upfront incentive for really bright rural students to become pharmacists, lawyers, specialist doctors etc. Helping rural students to overcome the natural barriers that exist to their access to post-secondary education is right on a moral level, but it would have many positive practical spin-offs across Canada as well. Why not offer to pay for on campus accommodations upfront with some sort of caveat that if a student does not work “x” number of years in a rural area upon graduation they are responsible for paying the full cost back to the government with interest? Maybe all three levels of government could get together and cooperate on the idea since it would have obvious benefits at all levels. There seems to be many different options and proposals that could be looked at and tested, yet no appetite to even consider them.
Any other “hicks” (I find the term endearing) nodding their heads out there? How about you urbanites, am I just whistling in the prairie wind? What am I missing in regards to why this is never addressed or even really looked at as an issue?