The Price of The McGill Dream

Graphic: Patrick Timmer
Many McGill students take similar academic paths to graduation. Though the courses they take, the major and minor concentrations they enroll in, and the extracurricular involvement they busy themselves with varies, the trajectory from first year to convocation tends to be fairly homogeneous: find your bearings as a freshman, get a few bad grades, realize there are subjects you’re actually passionate about, declare a major, and enroll in more courses you genuinely enjoy. In second year, your electives may be more relevant to your interests than the supposedly “easy-A” courses you chose in first year were. You’ll probably start getting better grades, acclimating to longer papers and more rigorous assignments, as well as getting to know your professors. By third and fourth year, your study habits will be well ingrained, you’ll feel comfortable asking for help, and you’ll have started to think about what you might want to do when you graduate. You’ve almost definitely had a job, internship, or volunteer experience thrown in that will ultimately make you more “hireable” down the line.

However, the path to a McGill degree isn’t so simple for everyone.

The Reality of the Dream

Academic success at McGill is inherently costly. Beyond tuition, books, technology, and living expenses, succeeding academically comes at a steep price. Many of these transactions are made in the first and second years of study, and going without them can be detrimental to this now-common trajectory.

A year of tuition, books, and fees ranges from $4,855 to $44,594, depending on where you are from and what you study. This figure does not include living expenses, which, for those living in McGill residences, run from $14,015 to $18,922.

“My parents have no idea what university is like, and no one was able to provide advice to me.”

For low-income and first-generation students, these fees can be incredibly burdensome. First-generation students are commonly thought of as students who are the first in their family to attend a postsecondary institution, yet this simple definition misses specific challenges that these students face. Disproportionately, first-generation students have other intersecting identities, such as being part of a marginalized racial minority or coming from a low-income family.

A major challenge that first-generation students face is the lack of academic advice from family members rooted in direct experience. “My peers have mentors in their parents who became lawyers [or] doctors,” said one first-generation student, who wished to remain anonymous. “My parents have no idea what university is like, and no one was able to provide advice to me.”

The Faculties of Arts, Management, Science, and Engineering each have a set of courses that are either required division-wide, required for certain majors, or simply very popular. These include introductory economics, math, chemistry, physics, biology, and pharmacology courses. These classes have corresponding “crash courses” conducted by outside companies, such as Prep 101, which typically run over weekends and cost over $100 per session. For students who work part-time, which many students in the Work Study Program may do, missing a full weekend of work is impossible, and can cost more than the price tag of each crash course. Additionally, not all students even know of the existence of these sessions, which have essentially become a necessary component of academic success. Doing poorly in these first- and second-year courses is generally not an option because of their requisite nature. A thorough understanding of the material and a good grade is necessary for progressing on to upper-level classes.

While this example may seem trivial in the scope of the three to five years spent as a McGill undergraduate, it evidences a systemic issue that McGill has done very little to address. Though financial aid from the university and the government may be relatively accessible, the supports necessary for students who come from low-income families, or who are the first in their family to attend university, are not. The recently released 2017-2022 Strategic Plan includes language advocating for increased financial aid and increased “physical accessibility and cultural inclusivity,” and members of the McGill administration stated at a Senate meeting this fall that they intend to focus on making a McGill education more accessible for first-generation students. What remains vague is how these goals will be achieved, and what will be done to help students who require more than just monetary assistance.

Making Ends Meet

Even financial aid at McGill can be out of reach for some: the Entrance Bursary Program, for example, requires that eligible students “demonstrate financial need” and “apply for and accept the maximum available government student aid for which they are eligible.” However, sometimes the latter criteria works against students. “I am supported by the Ontario government,” one student stated anonymously, “so McGill doesn’t give me financial support even if I ask for it.”

McGill also offers entrance awards to students based on merit. All applicants are automatically considered for some, whereas others require a separate application. However, the conditions for receipt are lofty: Canadian students from provinces other than Quebec must have a 95% overall average in all Grade 11 and 12 courses to be considered, and rank in the top 1-2% of their high school class. While these parameters speak to the exceptional quality of the students that McGill attracts, they are up to 19% higher than the margins for admission into a McGill undergraduate degree. For students who narrowly miss the threshold for need-based aid, the inaccessibility of these awards can be a tremendous burden.

McGill’s Work Study Program, open to the same pool of students who qualify for financial aid, allows students to find jobs on or near campus. The program offers an extensive list of opportunities on both the downtown and MacDonald campuses, but the requirements for each position vary, and can be highly specific. Additionally, eligibility for the program does not guarantee employment: decisions are made by the employers, and some postings require niche or technical skills, such as scientific knowledge, computer programming capabilities, or fluency in French, a skill many students at an English-speaking university like McGill do not possess. As noted by a student who wished to remain anonymous, “I qualify for Work Study, but I think it’s hard to find a job even with the smaller pool of candidates.”

Furthermore, to qualify for Work Study, students must be enrolled full-time. Taking four or five courses, maintaining the necessary GPA to be eligible for aid the following year, and working 15-17 hours a week is a large burden for even the most organized student to bear, particularly if they intend to participate in extracurricular activities or maintain some form of a social life.

The budgeting resources that McGill provides, such as the Frugal Scholar Program, are not tailored to students from low-income backgrounds, or to those who are first-generation. “Things like budgeting workshops work better for richer students who never learned to manage their money. From what I’ve seen, first-generation, low-income kids grew up knowing how to save and spend wisely,” one student maintained.

Fostering Accessibility

In August 2017, McGill announced the launch of a new pilot program called the “Youth in Care Bursary Guarantee,” a project to help current and former youth in the foster care system finance their undergraduate education. While the project aims to help overcome financial burdens and make McGill more accessible for youth in care, its status is not well-known, even amongst the McGill administration. During a recent forum between the administration and campus press, no high-level administrator was able to provide details about the initiative, stating only that “it’s a great program.”

In January 2017, a report was submitted to the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) entitled “Striving to Place: The First Generation Student Experience at McGill University,” which outlined the experiences of first-generation students at McGill and suggested how to make their experiences more positive. The report found that McGill was “lacking in targeted recruitment, retention, and support strategies for first generation students, and… [has] fewer first generation students than across Canadian universities.” Suggestions included the creation of specific need-based bursaries for first-generation students, the development of mentorship programs, comprehensive data collection, and the expansion of the SSMU Equity portfolio to include the implementation of these recommendations in its mandate.

Despite the suggestions outlined in the report, as of yet no progress has been made on its execution. Though services such as Midnight Kitchen, the SSMU Daycare, and McGill Health Services all exist for the purpose of providing necessary services to the McGill community at low costs, they are not specifically tailored towards first-generation or low-income students, but rather to the McGill population as a whole.

“I don’t want to be defined as a first-generation student, or stigmatized in a room networking or otherwise. I do feel dumber.”

McGill is unique in that 79% of undergraduates have parents with at least one university degree; at other Canadian universities, just 40% of students do. The experience of being a minority on campus in this sense varies among first-generation and low-income students at McGill. Speaking about their time in residence, one student said that they lived in Molson, “where there wasn’t really a wealth class divide. We were all just first years and [they] loved that.”

Other students have expressed that they do feel comfortable sharing their background with their peers. “It’s something to be proud of,” one student stated. “My mom took university classes online and never went to a campus, but somehow [became] a registered nurse through a small community school. My dad never graduated high school and had a successful business.”

“I’m really proud of my family and myself for being where we are now,” they said. “I have nothing in [common] with most people at McGill, but it doesn’t bother me much and has never really affected my friendships.”

Not all students feel this way: 42.9% of respondents to a survey conducted by The Bull & Bear this month said that they do not feel comfortable disclosing their family and financial background to friends. One student said that “most of the students I know at McGill come from a position where they cannot relate to mine, or find it hard to relate even if they try. As a result, I feel judged and inadequate.” Another student stated, “I don’t want to be defined as a first-generation student, or stigmatized in a room networking or otherwise. I do feel dumber.”

Ultimately, first-generation and low-income students want to be able to discuss their experiences without stigma. “Make it more common to discuss in public,” one student expressed. “It feels like a taboo subject and that makes it even more awkward and uncomfortable for us.”

The efforts that McGill and the SSMU have made to change the culture are worthy first steps in addressing a systemic issue that runs far deeper than offering financial aid and opportunities to work part-time. However, the McGill dream of a steady march forward from Frosh to convocation will only be truly obtainable when no McGill student feels “dumber” than their peers because of their financial status or their parents’ educational attainment.

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