Sure, there are (some) catches, but Ontario really is getting free tuition for low-income students. Here’s how

Ontario’s pledge to offer free tuition to low-income students has been met with as much skepticism as it has applause.

Peter J. Thompson/National PostPeter J. Thompson/National PostMembers of the Ontario legislature look over a copy of the 2016 budget.

Everyone seems to have a different take on last Thursday’s announcement in the provincial budget that low-income students will soon be able to attend post-secondary education for free. By 2017/18, students from households making less than $50,000 a year will pay no tuition, and at least half of those from homes taking in less than $83,000 will also pay no tuition. Unlike current programs, the upfront Ontario Student Grant (OSG) means their initial tuition bill could be zero.

But to many, the province’s complicated new grant system sounded too good to be true. On the right, it was slammed as an income redistribution that hurt the middle class; on the left it was decried as part of a secret plan to privatize universities. To clear up the confusion, the National Post spoke with a senior government source involved in the development of the policy. (The source asked not to be named, because he or she is not authorized to speak with reporters.) So here is how the OSG will actually work:

How much will this cost?

Nothing — well, nothing more than the $1.3 billion a year the government already spends on grants for post-secondary students. This straightforward option replaces a bunch of previous grants — some applied to Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) applications, and some were offered as rebates or as tax cuts.

Does that mean the 30 per cent off grant has been eliminated?

Yes and no. The previously existing 30 per cent off tuition rebate was sent to all college and university students from households making less than $160,000 a year. Now, all of them who apply through the new program will either pay they same they are now or less. And, instead of it being sent after tuition is paid, that grant will be part of of a net bill students will receive for their tuition. That grant was also limited to students who moved to post-secondary education from high school within four years of graduating, while the new one is open to anyone of any age.

Who can apply?

All Ontario university and college students attending a Canadian university can apply for the new grant program. That means more support for mature students or those returning to school and for those attending school in another province. The OSG will not support students going to American universities.

Peter J. Thompson/ The National PostPeter J. Thompson/ The National PostThe Ontario flag flying at Queen's Park, the seat of the Ontario legislature, where the 2016 budget was tabled Thursday.

Is it really “free” tuition?

There has been a lot of quibbling over whether the OSG is actually free tuition. Some of the arguments stems from confusion, others from misleading media reports. But at the end of the day, the new grant program means students from households making less than $50,000 a year will not pay tuition and they should get enough support to cover books, schools’ ancillary fees and some of their living costs. When the budget refers to a maximum $3,000 a year they may need to contribute, that’s in reference to possible living or transportation costs. The grants will work on a sliding scale, so someone from a household making $51,000 a year could end up paying no tuition, as could someone from a family with three young people in post-secondary education but with two parents making $80,000. (OSAP requires students submit their parents net income as reported on their tax returns, meaning what they take home not their gross salary).

All told, the government estimates 150,000 post-secondary students will enjoy free tuition each year and another 170,000 will pay less than they would under the current system.

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