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Fool school 

What were you thinking? According to a recent report, Nova Scotia is the least affordable place for university students in North America, so get used to the taste of ramen noodles, smarty-pants.

Yo, stupid!

Yeah, I'm talking to you, Mister and Miss smart university student. Heh, or rather, Mister and Miss allegedly smart university student.

Gee golly, you've mastered—aced!—the lowest-common-denominator high school graduation exams and got yourself accepted into the big ivy-covered university. Whoop-dee-frickin-doo.

What does that prove? You're annoying enough to get socially promoted out from under the heels of world-wearied high school teachers, and you've managed to piece together enough of daddy's money and university loan debt to pay the ivy-covered tuition bill. Sure, there's a bevy of administrators with big mortgage payments to make, more than ready to take your dough.

I mean, puh-lease.

Let's put it this way: you wanted to go to school, and you picked a university in Nova Scotia. Talk about stupid.

Well, I suppose you could've gone to tiny Mount Allison University, stuck in Godforsaken, New Brunswick, just across the provincial line. If so, you would've paid an incredible $6,720 per year for the privilege of having classmates who think of cow-tipping as a good time. So you're not the ultimate stupid.

You're the penultimate stupid. Cuz, after Mount A, if you're going to school in Nova Scotia, you're paying more for tuition than you would anywhere else in Canada. Local prices range from a "low" of $5,000 for a year at NSCAD, through $5,050 for Mount Saint Vincent, $5,080 for Saint Mary's (add 100 bucks if you're a science student) and on up to $5,530 for Dalhousie ($810 more for science students).

And those rates are after the $500 rebate given to Nova Scotian residents. If you listen closely, you'll hear them snickering behind the bullet-proof glass at the registrar's office as they hand you that cheque: Another sucker! Personally, I'd pretend I was one of those Toronto prep-schoolers cluttering up campus on some sort of anthropological expedition to the foreign country of "Back East," and pass on the insulting rebate, just to avoid the humiliation.

Think about it. You're paying about $2,000 a year more than the national average. You could've gone to Memorial University up in St. John's, Newfoundland, and paid just $2,550 a year. Evidently, many of you are mathematically challenged, so let me tell you that's a saving of $3,000 a year, give or take, in tuition. Or $2,500 more than the rebate designed to lure you into staying in Nova Scotia. And you don't have to be a Newfoundlander to qualify for it.

But it's not just tuition. "You look at the total burden on students, and Nova Scotian students have the highest in North America," says Mike Tipping, who is the president of Dalhousie Student Union and chairs the Alliance of Nova Scotian Student Associations.

Tipping points me to "Beyond the 49th Parallel," a report published by the Educational Policy Institute (Google it), which looks at the total financial burden on university students—meaning, tuition and living expenses with consideration of the availability of grants, loans and government support—and compares it to the median income in each of the 50 US states and 10 Canadian provinces.

There's a nifty table on page five of the report, listing all the jurisdictions. You have to scroll down—way, way down, past Alabama, past West Virginia, even past New Brunswick, home of ridiculously priced Mount A—to find Nova Scotia, at the absolute bottom of the page.

"In Canada," note the report's authors, "the most affordable jurisdiction was Quebec, followed by Alberta and Ontario; the least affordable jurisdictions were Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and, by some considerable distance, Nova Scotia, which was also the least affordable jurisdiction overall."

"By some considerable distance." And still, Nova Scotia universities are full. With all those allegedly smart people.

Tipping seems like a stand-up guy who knows what he's talking about. I reach him on his cell phone, while he's between meetings in Toronto. He's there trying to rally political support for the federal Millennium Scholarship Foundation. That program provides the bulk of needs-based grants for university students (30 percent of Nova Scotian students who get financial assistance rely on it), but is set to sunset this year. It's anyone's guess if Stephen "Culture of Defeat" Harper wants to see the program live.

"Nova Scotia is one of only three provinces that have no low-income grant programs for college students," says Tipping. "We've got some students who graduate with no debt at all, and others who graduate with huge debt, so even more than the tuition issue, I think we should first concentrate on helping those who need it the most.

"Students in Nova Scotia graduate with the highest debt," he continues. "The average is $24,000, but more than a third of students graduate with over $30,000 in debt."

So, pardon me for asking, but why should anyone go to school in Nova Scotia?

"Nova Scotia has some of the best schools in the country," says Tipping.

That's a good line, but there doesn't seem to be any hard data to back it up. I asked the people at the provincial Educational Department if they have any information on the value of a university degree from Nova Scotia as opposed to one from anywhere else, and got a big head-scratching "I dunno" from them.

From what I can gather by reading through the literature, in terms of future earning power, a degree from Dalhousie is worth the same as one from UBC or Concordia—at least compared to the broad spectrum down in the States, where a Yale degree is valued much higher than one from Ohio State University.

Still, each university spends millions of dollars on "recruitment programs" to get you to pick theirs.

Shouldn't that money go towards reducing tuition fees instead? Just asking.

Anyway, there are indeed good reasons, besides tuition, to pick one school over another.

"A lot of people go to school in Nova Scotia for the city of Halifax, the broader experience," says Tipping, who hails from Maine. "Dalhousie has a lot of students from Toronto and other places in Ontario."

Those would be the prep schoolers I mentioned before. I guess they find us exotic, with our bluenoses and funny accents. Or maybe they like to drink our beer while listening to diddily-diddily fiddle music.

Regardless, why stop in Halifax when you can keep going straight through to St. John's —where they have even funnier accents, more beer and people singing "I'se the B'y" on every street corner—and do it for less money?

"What I've seen happening," says Shona Perry-Maidment, associate director of the office of student recruitment at Memorial, "is that people from Toronto want to go to a place that's just a little different. It's our culture, our arts, the whole experience, along with a quality institution. There's a mystique and intrigue of going "Back East' to college. They want to spread their wings."

That almost sounds like a Rod Stewart song.

Well, there's no figuring those wacky Torontonians. Maybe the ones who stop here just aren't as ambitious as the ones who make it across to Newfoundland. "Ah, this is good enough," they say as they're filling their gas tanks in Truro. "I'll just stick around here somewhere."

But a lot of Nova Scotians seem to agree with the more ambitious Torontonians. Increasing numbers of the smarter locals, anyway, are heading up to MUN every year. Four hundred and thirty-two Nova Scotians attended MUN for the 2004-05 school year, 540 in 2005-06, and 725 last year. Take that, culture of defeat! Who says you can't teach a Bluenoser new tricks?

So what about the rest of you?

Maybe you just can't break momma's apron strings, or perhaps that group of kids you hung out with in high school were just the coolest kids ever in the whole wide world, and you couldn't possibly move away from them.

But fear not! I've got a solution: it's called an airplane. Great invention, that. See, Air Canada has a return flight connecting St. John's and Halifax for the low, low price of $114. (That's ridiculous in itself, but don't get me started.) With the $3,000 in extra cash you'd be saving in reduced tuition, you could make that flight 26 times—you could go to MUN and fly home to momma nearly every weekend. Tell your Grade 12 buds you'll meet them for cigarettes behind the Needs store.

OK, OK, maybe you're not ready to bail on Nova Scotia. And the provincial government is making all sorts of promises to keep you around.

"The government has committed to having tuition at the national average by 2011," says Kevin Finch, spokesperson for the Department of Education.

"This is the first time in living memory that anyone has talked about a tuition decrease," says Tipping. "And there's a commitment from Karen Casey, the education minister, to have a comprehensive review of issues affecting students."


Oh, sorry. I was kinda nodding off there.

But the Nova Scotia government is going to keep a promise? Colour me skeptical. In fact, this "meeting the national average" talk doesn't have so much to do with actually lowering tuitions. Rather, the pols are hoping—hoping!—that tuition will go up in other provinces, making Nova Scotia's tuitions look not so bad.

"Yes, we'll get there by lowering tuition here and seeing it increase elsewhere. It's a combination of the two," says Finch, who nonetheless agrees that last year's tuition freeze didn't actually, you know, lower tuition.

"It's been gradual," he continues. "But it's hasn't been enough of a change each year to get us to the goal. The final year we'll probably have to tweak it in order to get there. It'll be gradual now, and looking like a bigger drop at the end."

I guess you're supposed to hang in there, pay the big bucks this year, and next, and the year after. And your graduating year, after the famously inept Nova Scotian politicians "tweak" the numbers, you'll get to pay the national average.

This story reminds me of Rex Murphy, the pompous multisyllabic CBC broadcaster. Say what you will about Rex, but back in the day he successfully cut through similar tuition bullshit. Like a hot knife through butter, he did.

The year was 1965—you weren't even a walk-of-shame worry yet. But there was this premier, a fellow named Joey Smallwood, who made a bunch of noise about free university tuition, and all the national newspapers started praising his wisdom and so forth. Problem was, it was all smoke and mirrors. Smallwood was juggling the books, turning "tuition" into "big loans to students, payable on graduation" and getting a bunch of positive PR out of it besides.

Murphy was a lowly college student at the time, but in a nationally televised speech, he called Smallwood all sorts of multisyllabic dirty names, and spelled out exactly how the "free tuition" thing was a scam. The resulting showdown—Smallwood tried to kick Murphy out of the province—saw Murphy victorious and the provincial government ended up giving free tuition to students.

The province? Newfoundland. The university? Memorial.

Take that as a lesson: If you want to see the politicians follow through on their promises, you've got to get in their faces, often and loudly. If not, they're just going to laugh at you.

They'll think you're stupid.

You’re reading this on a plane to Newfoundland, click here.

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You’re choking back tears in the Student Loan line, click here. Or, consult the Table of Contents.

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