Eduvation Blog

Students at Risk, Fall(ing) Enrolment, and Rethinking Assumptions

Good morning! Congratulations on surviving Day 1 (or Tuesday, anyway)!

It’s still early in the term, but today I want to share 5 preliminary hypotheses based on 50 enrolment announcements to date. The data will be clearer in a month, but so far it seems to align with US data, and looks like bad news for community colleges.

As promised, I also want to continue our look at the “New Normal” for higher ed, and how it has us rethinking our assumptions already.

But first, a roundup of significant COVID19 news…


K-12 Outbreaks in Canada

As K-12 schools have started reopening across the country, COVID19 cases are (as you might expect) going “viral,” affecting hundreds of students at a private school in West Vancouver, 5 schools in Ottawa, 23 schools in Alberta, and (of course) up to 120 schools in Quebec. There’s a shortage of school bus drivers in southwestern Ontario, and they’re on strike in Winnipeg. Teachers walked out at a school in Mississauga over masks.

Yes I know, elementary and secondary schools are not a perfect analogy for tertiary schools, since students might reasonably be expected to grow more responsible about masks and social distancing as they get older. Except that effect seems to stop somewhere in their teens…

Social Non-Distancing

Police have had to shut down unsafe parties in Sherbrooke QC, London ON, and Waterloo ON. A single motorcycle rally in South Dakota may have been responsible for an astounding 250,000 cases of COVID19. As infections start to rise again, Ontario has paused its reopening plan for 4 weeks, England has banned gatherings of >6 people, and BC has ordered nightclubs and banquet halls closed, and prescribed earlier closing hours and lower music volume levels for bars. (It is going to be a loooong winter for extroverts!)

COVID on Campus

Perhaps PSE campuses will be different…

We’ve only started returning students to campuses in Canada for fall, and only a handful of cases have been reported so far, at uSt-Anne, Dal, Acadia, McMaster, uCalgary, and now also at Loyalist. (Doubtless I’ve missed a few – somehow nobody wants to brag.)

But in the US, where many campuses have been open since early or mid-August, it’s quite another story. (A nightmare, really.) There are now about a dozen institutions with >1,000 COVID19 cases! The club includes uIowa (1,569), Ohio State U (1,525), U South Carolina (1,443), Indiana U (1,370), uAlabama (1,367), Auburn U(1,331), UNC Chapel Hill (1,152), uDayton (1,135), East Carolina U (1,084), Illinois State U (1,023), and Texas Christian U (1,021) – and will likely soon also include North Carolina State U (996) and uArkansas (961).

Even 1% of those numbers would likely drive many CdnPSE campuses to shut down. (For instance, the new Emergency Response Plan at Bishop’s seems to draw the line at 2 cases!)  

Rethinking Assumptions

Building on yesterday’s exploration of the pandemic as a “pivotal moment,” let’s look at some of the ways it has already changed PSE, and as one McMaster Dean puts it, shown us a “better version” of higher education…

Ten COVID Changes

The pandemic has shifted institutional operations, altered the student experience, triggered protests by faculty and staff, and affected the local economies and public services in college towns. It has prompted 231 class-action lawsuits for tuition or fee refunds, and increased threefold the demand at some campus food banks. Institutions are buying millions of facemasks, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer stations and thermometers – and laying off thousands of staff and faculty. The recession seems to have discouraged persistence for students from the lowest socioeconomic strata, by at least 5%.  Chronicle

Service Delivery Demands

PSE institutions should anticipate that F2F instruction will not resume until fall 2022, and even then will require increased investment in pandemic prevention measures. Instructional designers and educational technologists will be in great demand to redesign curriculum and delivery. WFH and online service delivery will continue, with heightened demand for extended service hours.  RRU

The Mother of Pedagogical Change

COVID19 has prompted adjustments to teaching, student engagement and research that “show us the way to a better version of higher education,” writes Ishwar Puri, McMaster’s Engineering Dean. Lectures are being replaced by 10-15 min online modules, and libraries of OERs. Immersive VR and gamelike lab experiences are being developed with software like Quanser. Online bridging programs are improving the academic readiness of incoming students, and creating social connections in small cohorts. Finally, institutions have the impetus to move away from the 114-year-old “credit hour” metric for student learning, to recognize skills and competencies in microcredentials.  McMaster

“The pandemic has the power to humble us all and open our eyes and ears in new ways. We have been disoriented by COVID-19 and forced to listen more, empathize and fully imagine how to serve the needs of our students, employers and communities.” – Ishwar Puri, Dean of Engineering, McMaster U


Letting Go of Assumptions

In a sense, writes Matt Reid, early filmmakers “filmed plays” rather than making the most of their new medium, and likewise higher ed is still largely “using a new technology to mirror what we used to do, rather than to find new ways to do things.” In our new normal, why can’t profs hold office hours on Sundays? How do we define a signed document? Why do students pay lab fees when labs are closed? As the pivot to online stretches out to months and even years, we’re going to need to re-examine collective agreements, ERP systems, financial aid rules, and government regulations. And we’re going to have to overcome cultural resistance to change: “At their best, cultures work as catalysts; at their worst, they work as overactive immune systems.” Inside Higher Ed

The New (Old) Normal

Michael Crow, president at Arizona State U, argues that for higher ed, “the new normal is partly an old normal that many ignored.” Among the “pernicious old problems,” far too many outcomes are predetermined by the household incomes of students. Universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access: in combination with F2F teaching, digital instruction (including adaptive learning platforms, predictive analytics, and online instructional design) can enhance student engagement and learning outcomes at scale. Although pundits are predicting a wave of college closures and consolidations, and the ascent of online mega-universities like ASU, instead Crow urges colleges and universities to “collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.”  Big Think

“The ‘new normal’ of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary.” – Michael Crow, President, Arizona State U


US Enrolment Trends

Although many US pundits predicted that the pivot to online this summer would encourage students to take cheaper courses from community colleges, in fact the reverse appears to have been true…

US Community Colleges hit Hard

This summer, US community college enrolments dropped more than 5%, particularly for rural, Black, older, male, and part-time students. (In fact, full-time enrolments increased 7% this summer, and enrolments by students 17 or younger increased 10%.) 86% of CCs shifted instruction to online or hybrid – considerably more than among competing 4-year institutions in the US, and often for applied programs that do not lend themselves as readily to online delivery. This fall, 92% of CCs will be delivering virtually or in hybrid mode. As of July, 74% of CC presidents expected enrolments to decline this fall. Community College Daily

Students Increasingly At-Risk

The combination of the pandemic, recession, and racial unrest has impacted PSE enrolment most for male, lower-income, and Black Americans, according to monthly data from 2,700 institutions. Compared to 2019, lower-income students were less likely to study this summer, and higher-income students were more likely to do so. (Higher-income students are more likely to be traditional age, living at home, with access to internet and devices.) Summer enrolments boomed 4% at 4-year colleges and universities, and particularly among Asian students (who rose 12%). Enrolments at community colleges dropped 6% overall, and 11% for Black students. Online institutions saw a 4% drop in undergraduate enrolment this summer, but a 6% rise in grad students.  Hechinger Report

Canadian Enrolments

So far I’ve tracked about 50 public announcements or projections of fall 2020 enrolment at Canadian colleges and universities. (The vast majority of institutions have been silent, which probably indicates BAD news.) It’s partial information, vague and often optimistic, preliminary and suggestive rather than conclusive, but let me go out on a limb here…

1)  International Enrolments are Down

Clearly international enrolments are down almost everywhere in CdnPSE, except apparently McMaster and uSask (for undergrad programs, anyway). Ontario colleges expect to be hit particularly hard, likely because their shorter programs will be impacted more by a year spent online, and their numbers may be amplified due to collaborative partnerships with private providers in the GTA. I’ll be curious to see how further announcements fit this pattern, and would love to hear more about what McMaster and uSask are doing differently, if their numbers hold.

2)  Domestic Enrolment is Down for Most Colleges

Domestic enrolments, on the other hand, are down for almost all colleges (except apparently Camosun and Fanshawe), while they are up at about half of universities. The pattern is what you would expect, considering that so many college programs are trades and applied programs, traditionally taught in hands-on labs, and that they enrol so many older, lower-income students. It also likely reflects the fact that, as I projected in my 2013 article about “Peak Campus,” universities can simply skim deeper into their applicant pools to divert top-achieving college students.

3)  Top Tier Brands are the Clear Winners

It wouldn’t surprise me if the big winners in domestic enrolment turn out to be top research universities like uToronto, uWaterloo, Western, and uSask. (Dalhousie would certainly be an outlier if its negative projections hold.) Far-flung Canadian undergrads see an opportunity to attend a big brand institution without leaving home, and may even assume that larger institutions have better-developed online offerings.

4)  Campus Brands are at a Disadvantage

It appears as though many of the universities struggling with domestic enrolment this fall are those that have always prided themselves on their campus experience (like Acadia, Brandon, Bishop’s and MSVU – although of course Western does too). The Maple League institutions stand out for their commitment to delivering F2F classes this fall: could it be that applicants have been scared off by the idea this year? It’s not just being located in a smaller town, since Algoma U reports a boost to their local enrolment.

5)  Applicant Pools may also Differ

Once more complete data is in, it would be interesting to disentangle the interplay of brand prestige, geographic proximity, planned delivery mode, and perceptions of online proficiency on domestic enrolment this year. The socioeconomics and demographics of university applicant pools might even help explain why some institutions are disadvantaged in a year when the digital divide matters more than ever.

Not-So-Great Expectations

Here are a few recent announcements in detail…

Conestoga College anticipates it may lose up to 3,700 students who are unwilling to study online this fall, including 2,700 international students. This could result in a $44M loss of tuition revenues.  The Record

Georgian College is projecting a $43 M shortfall on its $300M annual budget due to the pandemic. Summer enrolments were down 28%, and Fall enrolments are tracking 15% lower than last year – a 4% decline domestically, and 24% internationally. But final numbers remain “fluid.”  Barrie Today

Humber College anticipates a 40% drop in incoming international student intake this fall, enrolling 1,700 students rather than 2,800.  Toronto Star

Western U has experienced 2 years of declining international enrolment, totalling an almost 50% decline. (The problem is bigger than COVID19: even 2019 international enrolment was down 20%.) This year, Western hiked international tuition by up to 12%. Domestic first year enrolment is up 17% over the plan. Overall tuition revenue is reported to be level, but expenses will be up because of increased enrolment. Western Gazette


For more details, see Fall 2020 CdnPSE Enrolment. If you can add to the data or suggest some other interpretations, please add a comment there, or drop me a note.


Thanks for reading! Tomorrow, we’ll turn to crowdsourced predictions and scenario planning for post-secondary post-COVID.  Until then, stay safe and be well!


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