Getting a post-secondary education – or professional training – isn’t inexpensive. Tuition costs can range from as little as $5,000 per year for undergraduate studies to as much as $40,000 in tuition for a year of professional education. And those costs don’t factor in necessary expenditures on textbooks and other ancillary costs, to say nothing of general living expenses, like rent, transportation and food.

What that means, in most cases, is that Canadians who want to pursue post-secondary education must go into debt to do so. Financing through a bank loan or line of credit is possible, but most students who need financial assistance receive that assistance through a federal government program – the Canada Student Loan (CSL) program – as well as loan or grant programs provided by the particular province or territory in which the student resides.

Using a government-sponsored loan program to finance education has a number of advantages. Under the CSL program, any loans provided do not accrue interest while the recipient student is still in school and no repayment of the loan is required during that time. However, interest starts accruing once the student has graduated and, six months after graduation, those who received loans under the CSL program are required to make arrangements for repayment. Consequently, CSL loan recipients who graduated in the spring of 2018 must now consider what arrangements they wish to make for repayment of loan amounts received.

The onus is on the loan recipient to contact the CSL center to make required arrangements for repayment, and failing to do so will not delay repayment. In such cases, the federal government, as the loan issuer, has the right to automatically withdraw loan repayments from the same bank account where the loans were originally deposited.

Loan recipients can choose between a fixed interest rate on their loan (meaning that the interest rate stays the same until the loan is fully repaid) or a variable/floating rate of interest, which will change with changes in the prime rate.

Current rules provide the following rates for Canada Student Loans issued on or after August 1, 1995:

the fixed interest rate is prime plus 5%;
the floating interest rate is prime plus 2.5%.
The choice of whether to select a fixed or floating interest rate is, obviously, an individual one, which must take into account the size of the loan, the time period over which the borrower expects to make full repayment and, of course, one’s views on whether interest rates will be rising or falling over that expected repayment period.

Whatever the interest rate chosen or levied, borrowers who pay that interest can claim a federal and provincial/territorial tax credit to help offset those costs. The student loan interest tax credit is a non-refundable credit, meaning that it applies to reduce any federal tax payable, but cannot create or increase a refund. That federal tax reduction is equal to 15% of the interest amount claimed (provincial and territorial amounts will differ by jurisdiction). Interest amounts eligible for the credit are those paid in the current tax year or any of the previous 5 tax years, without limit. And, finally, the student loan interest tax credit can be claimed only by the former student who received the government student loan.

These criteria require former students who are eligible for the credit to consider the following factors in deciding whether to claim the credit, and in what amount.

Individuals who do not have tax payable for the year will not benefit from claiming the student loan interest tax credit, as there is no tax which the credit can reduce.
Individuals who have other available tax credits which must be claimed in the year the related expense is incurred should claim those credits first, as the student loan tax credit can be carried forward and claimed in any of the five years after the interest has been paid.
Where the individual has remaining tax payable in the current year after all other available tax credits have been claimed, the student loan interest tax credit should be claimed only to the extent necessary to reduce tax payable to zero. Any additional claim should be carried forward to a future year or years where it is needed to reduce tax payable.
There is a very important caveat. Once a student has graduated (especially from a professional training program like law or medicine), financial institutions will frequently offer to loan that student sufficient funds to allow the consolidation of all outstanding debts which were incurred to finance his or her education. Often the interest rate to be provided is a preferential one, and can even be lower than the rate which the student borrower would pay under the CSL program.

That preferential interest rate, however, has a “cost” of which most graduates are unaware. The student loan interest tax credit is available only for interest paid on government sponsored student loans. Borrowers cannot claim interest paid on any other kind of loan, even where that loan was used for financing post-secondary education. As well, no credit can be claimed for interest paid on an otherwise qualifying student loan that has been combined with any other kind of loan. If the borrower has obtained a loan from a bank or other financial institution, or has consolidated such a loan with government student loans which would otherwise qualify for the credit, none of the interest paid on that loan or consolidated loan will qualify for the student loan interest tax credit.

Consequently, borrowers who are considering a loan offer from a financial institution must include in their calculations not only the difference in interest rates, but whether any lower interest rate offered by the financial institution will compensate for the loss of any claim for the student loan interest tax credit.

When things work out after graduation in the way everyone hopes they will, the former student will have secured employment at an income sufficient to make repayment of student borrowings possible. Where that’s not the case, and the borrower cannot make repayment as required because of financial hardship, it’s possible to reduce the required monthly repayment through the Repayment Assistance Program. Details of that Program, and much more information on the Canada Student Loan Program generally can be found on the federal government website at https://www.canada.ca/en/services/jobs/education/student-financial-aid/student-loan.html.

The information presented is only of a general nature, may omit many details and special rules, is current only as of its published date, and accordingly cannot be regarded as legal or tax advice. Please contact our office for more information on this subject and how it pertains to your specific tax or financial situation.