Mathieu* was 18 when his parents stopped financing his studies. At the gates of the university, with a small job that only paid for rent and food, he had to make a choice. To qualify for student grants – equivalent to CROUS grants in France – he married Laura*, his girlfriend at the time. “As a little girl it wasn’t the idea I had of my marriage, she says. But we talked about it for months and today it’s a good story to tell.
The couple formed in high school. He was 16, she was 15. At the time, Laura was living with her mother and working part-time. Mathieu had a harder time. “He had a lot of expenses – rent, food, school fees – and his job wasn’t enough for him anymore. His father made enough, too much for the scholarship criteria, but he clearly couldn’t help it.”, describes Laura. The idea of student marriage then occurred to them, without being able to leave them. “We loved each other, but that wasn’t the only reason we got married. In our families, we knew people who had done the same for college scholarships. For him, getting married was just one way to keep going to school.
In 2013, two years after the first “I love you”the couple unites before the law. “I borrowed a white dress from a friend and put on her best shirt”she recalls. A simple marriage and two signatures that unlocked thousands of dollars.
Mathieu and Laura, during their wedding, in 2013. † DR
Family solidarity, an outdated prejudice?
In Quebec, as in France, the criteria for awarding scholarships are based on a simple principle: family solidarity. It is assumed that parents who can afford it will contribute to the education costs of their children. However, this is not always the case.
Mathieu was not considered independent in the eyes of the government. In fact, financial aid programs only recognize a student’s independence if they meet certain criteria:
Have completed a baccalaureate degree – equivalent to a license in France
have a child
Worked for two years without studying full-time
Have signed a marriage contract or civil union
Thanks to this administrative autonomy, the grants are determined on the basis of the student’s own income and not that of his family. In the case of Mathieu and Laura, their marriage gave them access to loans and grants: between 320 and 510 euros per month, depending on Laura’s university level, slightly less for Mathieu. “The loans really helped him, they let him go to college and my scholarships allowed me to focus on my studies without having to work full time on it”, she says. According to Statistics Canada, 12,560 Quebecers under the age of 24 were married or divorced in 2016. For young people under 19 this is one young person in 1,000.
The Quebec Ministry of Higher Education, polled by Slate, recalls that the criteria for autonomy were established in 1990, when the law on financial aid for studies was passed. According to them, “current criteria have been identified as situations where students are normally no longer under the care of parents”† But for Charles Fleury, a professor of sociology in Quebec and director of the Quebec Interuniversity Center for Social Statistics at Laval University, the criteria for the autonomy of financial aid for studies can be a long way from social reality. “The problem is that we take for granted that, if the parents have the resources, they will necessarily help, which is not the case. Parents have a power: they can decide for the child, favor one of their children, or they cannot help. In their social programs, the Scandinavian countries are wary of this family logic because of their unequal and discretionary aspects.
The criteria will not change for the time being. In 2018, government loans and scholarships were awarded to 73,113 independent students in Quebec. But this figure would be much higher if aid were more accessible, emphasizes Jade Marcil, president of the Student Union of Quebec. She recalls that there are other means than marriage to obtain student finance: the declaration of a special family situation or the derogatory request. For her, the government could easily improve its loan and grant programs by establishing “a statement of non-contribution from the parent to the studies, signed by the parent and the student. This could prevent these situations, not to mention students incurring debts with private organizations.
An old strategy
Getting married to stay out of debt was a well-known strategy in the early days of the utility. Today, about 20% of scholarship students are married or in civil union. In 2018, they represented 33,753 students, or 40% more than in 2010. According to Bryan St-Louis, head of press relations at the Department of Higher Education, this is the result of more global demographic changes: “Students who are married or in a registered partnership have a different profile. They are older and the majority of them have a dependent child.
Jade Marcil, of the Quebec Student Union, assures that scholarship marriages are less common than before. “In most cases, it is already couples who are together and decide to get married. These are people who are actually independent of their parents and who want to gain this administrative autonomy.she analyzes.
The professor and sociologist specializing in youth, Jacques Hamel, agrees. “The phenomenon is far from new, he explains, from the University of Montreal. It existed in my time. It was mostly a make-believe strategy: people pretended to be married to get the funding. Sometimes they even went so far as to put the husband’s clothes in the alleged husband’s closet to create a diversion. Proving the authenticity of the union was essential because in Quebec a feigned marriage is a fraud punishable by jail time. Today false marriages are rarer: “What has changed is that young people actually get married, supports Jacques Hamel. It’s no longer a pretense, they tell themselves: “We don’t really know if it will last, but it’s a way to fund studies.”
By getting married, Mathieu and Laura have thought about their future, but also anticipated the situation in the event of a divorce. Everyone kept their bank account, their student debts and promised one thing: “If it doesn’t work out between us, we’ll try to stay married until we’re done with our college programs. If so, we’d like to celebrate again when we’re done with school, with more time and more money.”
*Names have been changed.