TORONTO - The number of requests for student financial aid is on the rise in Ontario after a dismal economic year for young people, and university officials say it could be just the start of a flood of applicants that will wash over universities this fall.
"The messages we're getting from students and their families is that the parents may have had full-time jobs in the early part of 2008, but things happened in 2009 and parents now have lower incomes this year," said David Sidebottom, manager of financial aid services, admissions and awards at the University of Toronto, as he explained one reason for the increase.
The university has seen a 12 per cent increase in financial aid applications for the school year.
"Parents' incomes have taken a hit in some cases," said Sidebottom, who has been fielding calls from anxious students who've also struggled to find jobs to pay for their pricey education.
"Students have been having trouble finding full-time jobs going the whole summer," said Sidebottom, adding that the municipal strike in Toronto also affected students relying on work with city run programs.
Ontario Student Assistance Program applications are up 5.7 per cent this year for colleges and 4.6 per cent for universities, said Patrick O'Jorman, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
"It corresponds to the total number of applicants to schools," said O'Jorman, who said university applications are also up five per cent.
Last week's job report also painted a bleak picture for young people, showing a record student unemployment rate of 21 per cent in July.
For Rodney Diverlus, a 19-year-old student from Ryerson University, the challenge to find a summer job to pay his $5,500 tuition as a dance major was daunting and the choices were sparse.
Diverlus, who had worked for event planning organizations and NGOs in previous years, said he hoped to return to similar work, but his summer job became obsolete.
He said months of perusing job posting websites and following possible leads yielded scant results.
"There are moments where you get angry, and there are moments where you ask yourself could I have done more, but after applying for so many jobs, I don't know," said a frustrated Diverlus, who had no intention of applying for OSAP this year, but was forced to take out a student loan to pay for school.
Regions in Southern Ontario are also feeling the pressure of the recession and have seen the greatest pool of OSAP applicants.
Financial aid requests at the University of Windsor, a city hit hard by a limping auto sector, are up 30 per from last year.
"This is probably just the first wave, an indication of the true picture for the fall," said Brooke White, the executive director of student development and support at the university.
She said more appeals and requests for special consideration could pour in after September.
White and her colleagues are answering queries from fretful students, many of whom have never needed financial assistance before, because they received support from their families.
"There are more families struggling from job loss in Windsor than in any other area," said White.
At the University of Western Ontario in London, the registrar's office said panic and worry haven't taken hold of students yet, but OSAP applications are still up.
"I would say there's some real increase there and the numbers suggest 10 per cent (increase)," said Glen Tigert, an associate registrar at the school.
At Ryerson University in Toronto, applications for financial aid are also up 10 per cent.
"We are recognizing, both through reports and what we understand from our students, that we're going to have to do more with regards to bursary support for students as well," said Sheldon Levy, the president of Ryerson University.
He said that even with student loans, many students still need more money.
"Students here are sitting around," said Diverlus, trying to explain how desperate many of his peers have been over the summer months, "They're sitting around trying to get jobs and get meaningful employment."