Alberta town banks on future payoff with program paying tuition for some residents

A central Alberta town hopes paying for students’ post-secondary education brings the community social and economic benefits.

Drayton Valley, a municipality of 7,000 located about 135 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, launched its Zero-Fee Tuition program in 2019, offering to pay for tuition for residents enrolling in select NorQuest College programs.

At the time, the town was in the thick of an economic downturn. The program was seen as a way to attract more residents and help diversify its oil-and-gas-dominant economy. 

“We looked at ways that we could not only create hope in the community, but really help create jobs,” said Mayor Nancy Dodds, a town councillor when the program launched.

Though academic research on the program’s benefits has yet to be published, the town’s mayor already considers the program a success and hopes to expand it to fund training for Class 1 drivers, nurses and other in-demand jobs.

Not completely free

The town had hoped some students would move to Drayton Valley to take advantage of its Zero-Fee Tuition program — and some did — but when the pandemic moved all learners online, the town tightened its purse strings.

Students in the program’s first cohort had tuition fully covered. Today, students may receive up to $5,000 in tuition assistance if they enrol in select programs at The Health Care Aide Academy, Delmar College, the University of Alberta Faculty of Extension, Northern Lakes College or Olds College.

The schools and streams have varied over the years, but the intent of the program has remained the same: students must live in Drayton Valley to qualify for the funding and must have first exhausted other options, like government grants and bursaries.

Most of the students attend in-person classes at the town’s Clean Energy Technology Centre, which has multiple post-secondary partners. Some study virtually.

There were 20 students enrolled in the program in 2020. Of the 25 students in the program this year, more than half are training to become health-care aides.

Most students have been women

Beth Boser, who has worked as a teaching assistant and secretary, said she enrolled in the program because her three sons are starting to leave home and she wanted a flexible job.

She said the zero-fee tuition program will help solve a shortage of health-care aides in town. 

“Most of us are from the community and are staying,” she said of her intention to work full-time as a nurse’s assistant after earning her certificate. 

Dodds said the town has worked with high schools and industry partners to identify programs that interest students, worker shortages and skills gaps.

The town of Drayton Valley paid tuition fees for Melodi Lepage’s health care aide program, hoping she would stay and work in a sector with a labour shortage. She now works at the Drayton Valley Hospital and Care Centre. (Submitted by Melodi Lepage)

Nearly all of the students who have taken advantage of the program so far have been women.

Melodi Lepage said the promise of free tuition convinced her to enrol in 2020. 

She had considered earning a health-care aide certificate years ago and had even been approved for student loans for it, but did not sign up.

“A lot of adults sometimes just need that extra push,” she said. “They haven’t been in school for a while and so there’s apprehension.”

She said she loves her job at a long-term care facility because it is flexible, allowing her to pick up extra shifts in between managing a peat moss plant and practicing massage therapy.

U of A studying program

When Drayton Valley councillors approached the U of A’s Faculty of Extension about participating in the program, interim dean Maria Mayan was intrigued by the idea, both as a dean and as a researcher.

“I was just really enamoured by what they were doing in their community and how the zero-fee program was working,” she said.

Mayan, a professor at the U of A’s School of Public Health, received about $700,000 from the federal government’s Future Skills Centre to study the program.

Through interviews, surveys, focus groups and consultations, Mayan and her colleagues have been examining the qualitative and quantitative effects of tuition assistance.

Earlier this month, the researchers presented a report to the town council showing the program had significantly reduced or removed financial barriers to education.

Students’ experiences suggest the program may elicit hope and keep residents in the community, the report also said.

Mayan said some councillors questioned whether the program was worth the investment; this year its price tag is $250,000. 

She said she hopes to examine economic benefits in the fall and is searching for additional grants to extend research on the program beyond March 2023.

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