Tory budget expands financial aid for post-secondary education

The New Brunswick government is reviving a tax credit and expanding access to free tuition as it reshapes financial assistance programs for post-secondary education, Finance Minister Ernie Steeves announced Tuesday.

The Progressive Conservative government is finalizing a review of two assistance programs and plans to unveil a "renewed" tuition access bursary program that will include students attending accredited private universities and colleges in the province.

The Tories will also reintroduce the New Brunswick tuition tax credit, which was cut by the previous Liberal government in favour of a free tuition program. The personal income tax credit will be available to claim on 2020 tax returns.

"We're putting money in the hands of the students," Steeves said told reporters after introducing the 2019-2020 provincial budget.

Chanss Lagaden/CBC

The budget includes several other education initiatives, including a wage increase for early childhood educators and a commission to roll back regulations facing teachers.

'Good news for students'

The two financial assistance programs under review are the tuition access bursary and the tuition relief for the middle class program — both introduced by the Liberals under Brian Gallant. More than 7,300 post-secondary students at public schools took advantage of the two financial assistance programs programs in the 2017-18 academic year.

The province's tuition relief for the middle class program covers part of the tuition costs for students who don't qualify for the free tuition program.

The tuition access bursary offers free tuition to university or community college students whose gross family income is $60,000 or less. But the bursary was criticized for excluding private institutions and for a confusing application process.

There are eight public universities and colleges in New Brunswick — University of New Brunswick, University of Moncton, New Brunswick Community College, New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, to name a few. And there are a few private universities, like Crandall University and Kingswood University, and private career colleges, such as Oulton College. 

Darcie Robichaud, president of the Moncton-based Oulton College, said expanding financial assistance to students attending private institutions opens new opportunities for applicants who may be focused solely on costs. 

"It looks like good news for students; it's what they've been asking for the past few years. It's nice to see things moving forward and the playing field potentially levelling out for all students in the province," Robichaud said Tuesday.

It's something schools like hers have lobbied for in the past two years. 

"It puts us back in a competitive playing field with the public institutions," she said.

Tuition tax credit

The tuition tax credit program "consists of a personal income tax credit that students and their qualifying relatives family may be eligible for when they file their annual personal income tax returns," according to government spokesperson Vicky Deschênes.

"The NB tuition tax credit will be available to students attending public and private institutions, as well as full-time and part-time students," Deschênes said in an email.

Steeves said a review of the tax credit indicated 87 per cent of the graduates who received it made less than $50,000 a year.

"It was really a program that was helping the working poor, so we decided to bring that back to add to the tuition access bursary," Steeves said. 

Emily Blue, executive director of the New Brunswick Student Alliance, said the alliance supports expanding the assistance programs and hopes part-time students will also be included under the revised programs. 

As for the tax credit, Blue said it's not the most effective method of financial aid. Blue cited a C.D. Howe study calling tax credits costly to administer and largely ineffective

"New Brunswick really needs an effective debt relief strategy for students — something along the lines of interest-free student loans could be helpful," Blue said.

"We really appreciate the government acknowledging there needs to be help at the back end of a degree in addition to the front end of a degree. However, I'm not sure tax credits is the way we would suggest."