Heather Donkers was only 14 when she landed her first job, but she already knew exactly what she was going to do with her earnings. The Newmarket, Ontario native had her heart set on becoming the first in her family to go to university.
“I started working early to pay for undergrad,” she says. “My parents did what they could to support me, but they could only do so much. It was clear I was on my own for post-secondary.”
A steady string of summer and part-time jobs followed and, in 2016, Donkers graduated with a degree in global development, $30,000 in Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) debt — and a deep-seated desire to go to law school. Focused initially on international development work, her life plans were turned upside-down in her third year of university after she was sexually assaulted and spent two emotionally-charged years in the legal system.
“I’d always been an advocate for human rights, but my experience made me realize that social injustices often start and end with the law,” she says. “I realized I had an opportunity to use my experience to turn that around and accomplish through litigation what I always wanted to do in development work.”
In that moment, Donkers vowed to do whatever it would take to become a litigator — even draining the savings from her bank account.
“I spent every cent I owned trying to get in to law school.”
But, then, when she received the admission offer she wanted from Osgoode, reality hit. “The fact is there was no possible way I could afford it and there was also the back-end consideration. Even if I could get another loan, paying back what I already owed plus more was going to be hell.”
Making law school accessible
Donkers was caught between a rock and a hard place, and she isn’t alone. In 2015-16, Osgoode awarded $4.7 million in financial aid to students, including close to $3.5 million in bursaries based solely on financial need. It’s just one way the Law School is making legal education accessible to those from a diversity of backgrounds, explains Dean Lorne Sossin.
Earlier this year, Sossin led the development of a new three-year strategic plan built on the principle of accessibility in all its definitions. Called Access Osgoode, the plan sets out goals and objectives related to financial accessibility in the face of rising tuition and student debt; physical accessibility for students with disabilities; accessibility for students from equity-seeking groups or living with barriers to participation in the full life of the School, such as a mental illness; even accessibility in terms of how students obtain their legal education, using digital tools or flex-time options.
“Osgoode has great research, courses and experiential learning opportunities, but it’s also our responsibility to make sure that those who are qualified have the opportunity to benefit from all that we offer,” Sossin says.
In addition to a growing number of bursaries, Osgoode offers a free Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) preparation course called ALL: Access to Law and Learning, along with LSAT and admission application fee waivers to help address financial barriers to law school application and study. There are also graduating funds — the Wendy Babcock Social Justice Award and the Osgoode@125 Fund established through a student-led fundraising initiative, among them — to help graduating students with significant debt pursue careers in the public interest.
Five-year pilot project
Until recently, though, Osgoode didn’t have anything to help students like Donkers cope with the twin challenges of “sticker shock” and graduation debt.
In 2014, at the same time Osgoode students were spearheading the Osgoode@125 Fund, Sossin was exploring something no other law school had dared to take on — income-contingent loans. He invited the Osgoode@125 student leaders to come together with faculty members on an ad hoc committee charged with mapping out all aspects of the proposed program — from the contract participating students would sign with the university, to repayment schedules and the income threshold at which the loan could become forgivable. The committee even fielded calls from an unexpected source: OSAP representatives offered their buy-in to ensure the tuition loan wouldn’t be treated as income for students applying for provincial aid.
One year later, in 2015, the first five students were admitted to Osgoode’s JD program as part of the new Income Contingent Loan Program (ICLP), a five-year pilot project that allows five qualified Osgoode students a year to study tuition-free with the help of a university loan and a $10,000 annual bursary. Each student signs a contract agreeing to repay the loan over up to 10 years following graduation at a level contingent on their annual income. If their income drops below a prescribed amount, the loan repayment for those years may be forgiven in whole or part.
Olivia McKenzie was part of the inaugural group of Osgoode ICLP students. Born in Jamaica to a teenage mother, she immigrated to Canada when she was seven. During her first semester of undergraduate study at the University of Toronto, her mother was laid off from work and the burden of supporting the family fell to McKenzie. Several years later, when she was offered a place at Osgoode, it was her mom who urged her to go, saying, “Just do it. We’ll figure it out.”
“I accepted blindly,” McKenzie remembers. She was unable to secure a bank loan because of her existing OSAP debt and an offer of additional support from the government assistance program wasn’t enough to cover her nearly $26,000 a year tuition bill.
“The ICLP was quite literally my last chance.”
A year later, Heather Donkers was also out of options. “After I received my offer from Osgoode, I kept telling myself not to get excited because I couldn’t go without the ICLP,” she says.
According to Alissa Cooper, Osgoode’s Manager of Admissions and Student Financial Services, interest in the ICLP has been strong from the get-go and growing quickly. Last year, Donkers was one of 272 program applicants. This year, that number is 334 or approximately 15 per cent of Osgoode’s total JD applicant pool.
Donkers didn’t commit to Osgoode until she received news of her ICLP acceptance in early March. “I cried a lot and accepted Osgoode’s offer the next day,” she remembers. “It was such a blessing because Osgoode was my dream school and the only one offering anything like this.”
Blazing a trail
Osgoode is the first and only Canadian university faculty or school to offer a loan program structured in this way. While there are some programs designed to assist with back-end debt relief, none involve the university as a lender. “We’re blazing a trail,” admits Sossin.
The funds to support the loan portion of the ICLP come direct from Osgoode’s surplus and are based on what Sossin calls “conservative” repayment projections. Back-end debt relief is also a priority of Osgoode’s Annual Fund supported by alumni and the student-initiated Osgoode@125 Fund. At the same time, the School continues to explore alternatives to tuition increases.
Adds Sossin: “We can’t wait for the government to fix this. We have to take ownership and find new ways of meeting students’ needs in a way that, ultimately, we hope and expect will attract donor dollars and government support.”
Even just two years into its five-year mandate, the ICLP is generating strong support — from student leaders, who have made it a priority and from Osgoode’s staff, who are fielding the growing number of applications and inquiries from students. The number of students who can attend Osgoode because of the ICLP and the diversity of the School’s classes are both important measures of the program’s success. The real test, though, will be how many students pay back the loan, something Osgoode won’t know for several years.
Still, Sossin is setting his sights on not only continuing the program beyond the initial pilot term, but expanding it. “By 2020,” he says, “we’re looking to double the program to 10 students a year, which means 100 students at any one time will experience a legal education that might not otherwise have been possible.”
For their part, Donkers and McKenzie are thrilled that the program was there when they needed it and not just to help make ends meet. They credit Osgoode and the ICLP with helping to bust some persistent myths about law school and financial need.
“Programs like this get people here who can’t afford it, but do deserve it,” says McKenzie.
“Some people think students apply for financial support because they don’t want to pay their own ticket,” adds Donkers. “More often, they’re like me — people who are brave and smart and working their butts off, but unable to realize their dream because they can’t afford to.”
“It turned out well,” she wants everyone to know, “because here I am now!”
Christine Ward is Principal of Ward Development Communications based in eastern Ontario.
Originally printed in Osgoode’s alumni magazine Continuum in 2017.