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Holding back tears, Premier John Horgan announced last week that children who spend two years or more in foster care will get free tuition at any B.C. college or university.
Horgan’s emotions were understandable. His father died when he was 18 months old, leaving his mother to raise four children. He was the first in his family to attend a post-secondary institution.
With an important qualification, we believe this was the right decision. Far too often, kids who have been raised in foster care are abandoned by the state when they reach 19. That can mean a life on the streets, drug addiction and worse. University is often the furthest thing from their minds.
Moreover, tuition fees for a four-year humanities degree are about $25,000. That’s far beyond the reach of youngsters who have spent their lives in poverty.
So, yes, this is by any measure a welcome step. But now, the qualification.
For every child in foster care, there are 20 more living in low-income families – i.e. in families earning between $25,000 and $35,000. B.C. has about 8,000 kids in foster homes. But 160,000 children are living below the poverty line.
These children, too, have little chance of attending a post-secondary institution. Yet they are every bit as deserving.
Horgan said he wanted to show foster kids that the government has their back. That’s a generous sentiment. Though in fact it’s taxpayers who have their back, some of whom can’t afford to send their own children to university. Where is the fairness in that?
There is another issue to consider. Over the past two decades, fewer and fewer young people are finding permanent work.
Automation is partly the cause, as is the flight abroad of labour-intensive jobs. The best chance our younger generation has to find meaningful employment lies in some form of post-secondary training.
So let’s suppose we expand Horgan’s offer of free tuition to every low-income child. The program would have to be income-tested, meaning kids at the bottom of the scale would pay nothing, while those higher up would pay a portion.
But what might this cost? B.C.’s outgoing representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, suggested $1 million would be sufficient to offer free tuition to foster kids.
That seems far too low. Assuming a four-year tuition of $25,000, $1 million would cover only 40 kids.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to come up with a more precise estimate. Some children living below the poverty line don’t graduate from high school, meaning they wouldn’t be eligible unless they return to get their diplomas. Others simply aren’t interested in university or trade school, even if it’s free.
Nevertheless, it should be possible to frame an approximate cost estimate. Roughly 60,000 children graduate from Grade 12 each year in B.C. Low-income kids make up 20 per cent of all children, meaning perhaps 12,000 might graduate annually and become eligible for free tuition.
This is almost certainly too high a figure, as the school dropout rate for these children is higher than average. So let’s say 10,000 graduate, and of these, 50 per cent take up the free-tuition offer. The cost would be $125 million.
That’s still probably a high-end estimate, but take it as a working proposal. Can we afford it? A better question might be, how can we not?
Horgan took an important step by opening the doors of our colleges and universities to those children most disadvantaged. Now he needs to complete this journey of redemption and throw open the doors to every poor child.
10 September 2017