SLS Town Hall Addresses Financial Aid, Debt Relief

Daryna Kutsyna (1L)

In preparation for the Dean’s Committee on Financial Aid meeting this month, the Students’ Law Society (SLS) hosted a town hall on October 12 and subsequently distributed an anonymous online tuition feedback survey. The town hall was open to all students wishing to express their concerns regarding financial aid distribution and the financial aid application process mandated by the faculty. SLS President Katie Longo, 2L Representative Solomon McKenzie, and 1L Representative Robert Nanni directed the meeting and fielded student questions.

These SLS representatives hold three seats on the Financial Aid Committee, making up a minority of votes on the faculty dominated roster, which includes Assistant Dean Alexis Archbold and Professors Ben Alarie and Albert Yoon. In response to a question about the amount of decision-making power the SLS holds, President Longo explained that, although the representatives have little sway on major decisions such as tuition hikes, the SLS has a significant impact on the “soft policy” that guides financial aid decisions. She noted that, for example, the SLS has successfully advocated for consequential changes such as expected spousal contributions and deemed amounts of savings from summer jobs.

The town hall discussion covered a range of issues, with a focus on soliciting student feedback on a more progressive model of financial aid distribution and options for post-graduate debt relief.

Currently, all those who qualify for financial aid are provided an equal share of their unmet need as a bursary and must make up the difference with government loans and lines of credit. While this distribution has provided larger bursaries to middle-income applicants, students raised concerns that those from lower-income or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds may be unable or unwilling to borrow the additional, considerable sums they need in order to attend.

In response to a query about the financial aid pot failing to match annual tuition hikes, the SLS representatives explained that the Faculty has failed to uphold its promise to commit 30% of tuition increases to financial aid. This promise was one of the grounds on which the Faculty approved deregulation of tuition in 2001.

The SLS representatives explained that the administration is currently committed to prioritizing financial aid in their fundraising efforts. However, as President Longo noted, the Dean’s Office has reported that these efforts have been hindered by donor fatigue following the hefty construction bill for the new law building. (The Dean’s office used that same explanation last year.)

On the topic of financial aid distribution, students in attendance suggested advocating for more progressive models. One student floated the approach adopted by some Ivy League schools, in which the 20% of students with the highest financial need receive free tuition while the rest of the class’s tuition is progressively staggered. Another student mentioned the income-contingent loan program currently being piloted by Osgoode Hall Law School for lower-income students. Under this model, students are only obligated to begin paying back their loans once their income has reached the median salary for an associate at a small Toronto firm. If a student’s income sits below a predetermined threshold in any of the years of the repayment period, the loan repayment for those years will be forgiven.

The issue of post-graduation debt relief was also raised. Currently, students who do not qualify for financial aid while in school are ineligible to receive relief payments on their private lines of credit, which may present a concern for students seeking employment in public interest fields or unable to secure employment immediately.

One student suggested obtaining private donor information and reaching out to them directly to persuade them to prioritize financial aid concerns. The SLS representatives responded that this would likely do significant harm to the SLS’s relationship with the administration and obstruct further financial aid negotiations.

Following the town hall, the SLS distributed an anonymous online survey to solicit a broader range of student financial concerns. The feedback obtained at the town hall and through the survey informed the SLS’s input at subsequent Financial Aid committee meetings.