Housing crisis sure to have an impact on education

‘Tis the time of year when university and college students are preparing for the fall migration south.

One need not waste time wondering how the current housing crisis will affect them.

Rural students are already less likely than their urban counterparts to attend college or university – especially the latter, according to a 2011 Statistics Canada report (31.5 per cent of rural students compared to 44.7 per cent of urban).

Other factors that influence the likelihood of getting post-secondary education, according to the report, include family income, family type, parents having at least some post-secondary, and Indigenous status.

A study by the Canadian Council on Learning (2006) stated much the same thing – rural students lagged behind their urban counterparts in education, being more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to get a college diploma or university degree.

The reasons given were varied – rural high schools tend to be smaller, meaning fewer opportunities to take courses needed for admission to certain post-secondary programs; less access to communications technology; and fewer well-educated, high-earning role models in rural areas (such people tend to move to cities where there are more opportunities).

Both reports are somewhat dated, but more recent material tends to support the basic theme that rural students have a couple of strikes against them when seeking post-secondary education – even before they head to the city and scramble to find a place to live.

Unless the student has relatives or family friends in the university or college city of choice, they are probably looking at paying a fortune to stay in a student residence or apartment.

According to Statistics Canada (2022), the cost of a four-year degree is $96,004 for students in residence and $48,074 for students living at home. In other words, accommodation pretty much doubles the cost of post-secondary education.

Virtually no university has enough residence rooms to accommodate all students. Some offer rooms to first year students only, figuring that will give them a bit of breathing space and the opportunity to find their way around. By second year, the expectation is they will know people, bus routes, subway schedules, and be able to rent a room or share an apartment.

A lot of those cheap apartments shared by generations of students have either been turned into short-term tourist rentals, “gentrified” to rent at much higher rates, or converted into condos. Looking for an affordable but decent apartment is almost like going on a quest for buried treasure.

Students are arriving in large numbers in cities that already have shelters packed to the rafters with homeless people, some of whom work full-time and simply cannot find accommodations they can afford.

Any student counting on arriving in a city and staying in a motel for a couple of days until they find a place to rent is probably out of luck. Most colleges and universities have offices to assist students with housing, but there is only so much they can do when the housing is simply not there.

The past couple of years have seen an increasing number of students cheated by con artists in apartment rental scams, notices begging community members with a spare room to consider renting to a student, and stories in the media about students forced to live in substandard, unhealthy and sometimes downright dangerous places.

There are no easy fixes. Universities and colleges are not going to go on a building spree, putting up student residences right, left and centre. Cities desperately trying to house their regular residents are not going to be investing a pile of money in student housing. As for our federal or provincial government… neither appears at all interested in getting into affordable housing.

That said, rural students are not going to suddenly develop the means to pay skyrocketing city rents while attending school.

What it leaves is bringing post-secondary education to rural areas – local community colleges offering university-level courses, attending classes via Zoom, and in general, looking at new, affordable ways to deliver the post-secondary education our rural students need to succeed.