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Mining OUAC Data: Pandemic Upsides

Good morning, and happy humpday!  

Today is also Bell Let’s Talk Day, but I’m on a roll far from mental wellness right now (in more ways than one), so if you want an Insider with a mental health theme, see last year’s “Let’s Press Pause and Talk Wellness.”

I’ve been out of the light of day, because I’ve spent the past week digging deep down in the data mines, trying to uncover what nuggets of insight I could from the latest truckload of applications to Ontario universities. I originally planned to publish this for “talk like a grizzled prospector day” on Monday (consarn it!), and somehow the image of a crazy man digging incessantly seems to fit.

But the results of my digging are all the richer for the delay, since I’ve been able to avail myself of some generous help from OUAC, and some great insights shared by registrars around the province. As a result, I’ve got enough ore to fill 2 issues, and with any luck, there might just be some glints of gold in there!

Let’s start today with a look at the pandemic “upside”: the universities and program areas that appear to have gained ground since COVID19 hit, attracting more applications from high school direct students. As we pan through the stream of data, these are the glistening flakes of gold that are looking shiniest. (I’ll get to the “downside” tomorrow.)

Let’s dig in! Hooooo-wee!



The Raw Ore

The Ontario Universities Application Centre shared their high-school direct undergraduate application numbers last week (OUAC 101s), giving us our first glimpse at what 2 years of pandemic has done to Canadian PSE interest on a large scale.


Caveat Lector

Remember, these are not final confirmation or enrolment numbers (which come in September), nor even final application numbers – some more apps will trickle in this spring, and students may change their minds. Also, these are applications, not applicants – this year, the average Ontario university applicant submitted 5.6 applications, to the same or different institutions. (That number has been steadily rising to a new high.) And finally, these stats are only for full-time, first-year, fall-entry programs, and do not include non-HS applicants (OUAC 105s), who include mature learners, transfer students, out-of-province and international students. (See OUAC’s 5 notes here.) Still, the data provide a useful longitudinal comparison for the largest set of PSE apps in Canada.



Traditional HS-direct apps are always interesting to me as a barometer of institutional reputation or appeal. (Actual confirmed enrolments can have more to do with institutional capacity and acceptance decisions. And don’t get me started on the reliability of public opinion surveys!) Research has shown over the years that Ontario teens are much more sensitive to university reputations (or at least more “judgy”), and they are more willing to relocate or consider multiple institutions than OUAC 105s. In that sense, Jan 101 apps give us a tangible measure of the impact of news headlines, controversies, strikes and more on the perceptions of HS seniors, among many other considerations. (It might be even better to focus on first-choice apps, but that data is hidden now.)


Pre- and Post-Pandemic

Throughout my comments here, I’m looking both at the YoY (year-over-year) change in 101 apps from Jan 2021 to Jan 2022, and especially at the 2-year change from Jan 2020 to Jan 2022. Applicants in Jan 2020 had no way of knowing that a global crisis was about to pivot PSE online, so they are certainly “pre-pandemic.” Arguably, the current crop of applicants in Jan 2022 have mixed feelings, as we all do: some applying in Oct and Nov 2021 may have felt the pandemic was all over, while other in Dec 2021 and early Jan 2022 may have felt differently amidst the Omicron upsurge. But as I explained on Friday (Covid19: What Next?) the outlook for Sept 2022 is still pretty promising, so these optimistic young applicants may just as easily believe they are applying for the first post-pandemic academic year in ages.

Regardless, by considering both the 2021 and 2022 apps, and comparing them with 2020, we get the earliest glimpse of data to suggest the impact of the pandemic on the PSE intentions of high school seniors. (It also insulates us from the risk of some yo-yo effects from merely one-year YoY blips.) If the trend line is consistent, it looks like a pandemic effect, and if it is reversing, I’ll try to point that out, too.

And I’ll try to be consistent: “apps” means applications, and I’ll spell out “applicants” when that’s what I mean. (“HS” means “high school direct.”)



The Golden Sector

After 2 years of pandemic, most Ontario university recruiters are probably feeling “golden” (with apologies to Laurier’s Golden Hawks). At least, the sector overall appears to be a pandemic “winner”:


11% More Apps

Overall, Ontario universities gained 2.3% in 101 apps last year, as of Jan 2021 – but that gain quadrupled to 8.4% this Jan (YoY), or cumulatively 11% in the 2 years since 2020. Some of that is a result of more cross-apps (they’ve been rising for a decade or more), but by no means all. In a pandemic, cross-apps might underscore rising student uncertainty, or even “hedging their bets” against their GPAs, or their uncertainty about relocating next Fall. Some of the growth doubtless reflects rising PSE participation rates and/or larger high school graduating classes. There could be a few more apps coming from HS students who stayed for a “victory lap” last year, to wait out the pandemic for a more normal campus experience. (If they took a “gap year,” though, they would be classified as 105s now.)

Unquestionably, this year’s surge looks like a vote of confidence in the university experience on offer for Fall 2022 – and we know the student experience matters more to 101s than anybody else. But of course, not all subject areas or institutions saw equally strong interest during the pandemic…



Winning Subjects

You won’t find program-group data on OUAC’s undergraduate application statistics page anymore, since it was apparently quite often misleading the public. (Some universities put subjects in very different categories than others, and even move them around mid-year!) I have to thank OUAC’s executive director Heather Lane, who patiently fielded my endless questions and provided me with some 2022 data by program grouping, so I could continue my annual comparisons.

Here are the program areas showing the biggest gains in application volumes over the pandemic:   

(Stay tuned for the rest of the program areas tomorrow.)



Mind Games

Strikingly, the biggest “winner” among subject areas through the pandemic appears to be Psychology, which has seen 101 apps skyrocket 60% since 2020! (Meanwhile, other social sciences – if you consider Psych one of them, anyway – have stayed flat.) This trend is reflected in US data too: American undergraduate enrolments in Psychology have risen 8.4% since the pandemic began. (Could it be pandemic-inspired interest in positive psychology and mental health?)


The Fauci Effect

I mentioned last year that health and biology programs were experiencing a pandemic boom, perhaps because of the high profile such experts have been getting in the media, and the growing realization of their importance to society. (I suggested we call it the “Fauci Effect” as shorthand.) The enrolment trend has been visible in the US as well, but OUAC’s data certainly confirms it for a second year: 101 apps to Biology/Biomed are up 19% since 2020, and Health professions including Nursing are up a whopping 33%! (Heather Lane points out that this doesn’t account for what might be happening with all the standalone Nursing programs at colleges, either.)


The Digital Pivot

While the pandemic has driven the whole world to ecommerce and remote meetings, and boosted the fortunes of the tech giant billionaires, students have clearly been paying attention: 101 apps to IT/CompSci programs surged another 26% this year, to a cumulative 41% since 2020! (Alex Usher attributes this to frantic cross-apps by students pursuing the hot fields, which could explain part of it too.) The increase in IT apps probably drove the rise of apps to uWaterloo, Queen’s, and Ontario Tech. Like the US, Ontario applicants have been gravitating away from Mathematics (down 7% since 2020 in Ontario, and 8% across the US). Ontario apps to Engineering, on the other hand, have risen 13% since 2020, while American colleges have seen enrolments drop by 7%. (We can’t always count on the US to mirror the Canadian reality!)


Great Outdoors

Two years of pandemic have taught us all the value of fresh air and time outdoors, but the encouragement of zoonotic viruses due to habitat destruction also seems to have raised consciousness of the importance of Natural Resources and Conservation. Since 2020, apps from 101s have risen 19%!



Winning Schools

Believe it or not, surging app numbers are not always good news for an institution: they can mean more paperwork to process, without any payoff if the institution isn’t trying to grow enrolment, or if those applicants are merely “tire-kicking.” But in most cases, rising apps signal institutional brand strength, program appeal, marketing and recruitment effectiveness – and can generate either larger incoming classes, or increased entering grade averages.

Here are the universities showing the biggest gains in application volumes over the pandemic:

(Stay tuned for the rest of the institutions tomorrow.)



Rising Tide Lifts All

In a sense, anything less than +10% amounts to a loss of market share, when the overall pool rose by 10.9%. (I include the new Université d’Ontario Français on a technicality, but their launch is certainly not a success so far.)


uWaterloo is the biggest pandemic winner, at this point in the year: up 15% since Jan 2021, but a whopping 30% since 2020! (In fact, even looking at the sheer number of apps, UW is up the most since 2020, by an additional 9,751 applications.) Associate registrar André Jardin tells me that apps went up across all UW faculties, but most notably for the newly-renamed Faculty of Health (formerly “Applied Health Sciences”) and the Health Sciences program (formerly “Health Studies”). And of course, the rising popularity of Engineering and CompSci across the province have also steered many students to Waterloo. (UW is well-known for its online offerings, too – but I don’t know whether that has impacted student choice in the pandemic or not.)

“In addition to the rising interest in health professions… we changed the name… Applied Health Sciences [to] the Faculty of Health. Our Health Studies program is now Health Sciences. These name changes may have contributed to our strong numbers.” – André Jardin, associate registrar, uWaterloo


Queen’s comes in second, up 13% from last year and 29% since 2020. (And because of its scale, Queen’s also has gained the second-biggest number of apps, an additional 8,507, since 2020.) Chris Coupland, executive director of undergraduate admission and recruitment, attributes some of this success to “new programming for which there is incredible student demand, such as our new Bachelor of Health Sciences, Mechatronics and Robotics Engineering, and direct-entry Life Sciences programs.” But Chris also credits the hard work of recruiters: “Bolstered by a university-wide collaborative approach, our enrolment team has pivoted well to an online setting to effectively showcase the range of academic offerings and stellar university experience on offer at Queen’s. Our outreach activity continues to focus on meeting applicants, families, guidance counsellors, and community partners where they are, to help guide them through this hugely important decision.”


Ontario Tech is up 22% since the pandemic began (twice the average), but a whopping 33% from Jan 2021 to 2022. Registrar Joe Stokes says it’s thanks to “a great mix of in-demand programs that produce grads that get top jobs, and a strong recruitment team that was able to get that message out to prospective students.” I suspect some of it is regional demographics, too, and the fact that the new Ontario Tech brand name is finally gaining traction in the market. (UOIT renamed itself in early 2019, a year before the pandemic hit.)


Algoma U has tiny numbers by comparison, but they have managed to attract 19% more 101 apps this year than last, and 20% more since 2020. Considering that most small institutions have been losing ground during the pandemic, their performance is especially impressive. Algoma VP Craig Fowler tells me they have been “very active and strategic in our recruitment, marketing and outreach” and have seen particularly solid numbers at the Sault Ste Marie and Brampton campuses. Algoma has also been updating and expanding its facilities to support “phenomenal growth” in high-demand and growing program areas, like those in their new schools of Business & Economics, Computer Science & Technology, and Life Sciences & the Environment.

“The pandemic has created challenges for our traditional recruitment methods, but like most of our peers, we have found other means to engage with prospective students… We have launched 3 new Schools, which have allowed us to better leverage our areas of strength in these high-demand program areas.” – Craig Fowler, VP of growth, innovation and external relations, Algoma U


uGuelph is up an impressive 22% from last year, and 19% since 2020 – attracting a staggering 5,262 more Jan 101 apps. (That’s a bigger increase in sheer numbers than uToronto!) uGuelph also notes that their first-choice apps are up 19.8% this year, and that apps to the Ridgetown campus rose 29%. Some of Guelph’s success can be attributed to program areas of growing popularity, including Agriculture, Natural Resources and Conservation, Life Sciences, and Psychology. Registrar Ray Darling adds that Guelph has “tried to really focus on a personalized approach to recruiting students, even in a virtual environment,” and has increased social media and traditional advertising. “Being able to offer campus tours this past fall certainly helped, as we know our campus is a differentiator.”


This is already a long newsletter, but I should also acknowledge that 4 institutions have managed to grow their Jan 101 apps by about 15% since 2020, including Trent U, Ottawa, McMaster and York – and considering the scale of those last 2, that’s a lot more apps. (They have each gained more than 6,700 since 2020.) All 4 institutions are still outperforming the provincewide average by about 50%, when you think about it.


I mentioned last year that Laurier seemed to be doing something right, too, growing 4% against the pandemic headwinds – but this year they are up another 7%, for a total of 11% since 2020. Chris Brunskill (Laurier’s assistant registrar, admissions) tells me that they were really fortunate to have been “making strategic investments in technology and adopting a 21st-century approach to student recruitment” even before COVID19 struck, and will be further ramping up efforts to “make personal connections and focus on building relationships” both virtually and in person.

“We were really fortunate to have made strategic investments in technology and adopting a 21st-century approach to student recruitment even before the pandemic… We will continue making personal connections and building relationships, both virtually and in person.” – Chris Brunskill, assistant registrar, Wilfrid Laurier U


uToronto unsurprisingly reflects the Ontario average, considering they attract almost 12% of all 101 apps, but it’s still an impressive feat for my (grad) alma mater to handle 5,219 more apps than pre-pandemic. (I somehow doubt they want the numbers to grow any more than that!)



Pandemic Upsides

So, based on all the data and caveats above, who is experiencing the biggest pandemic “upside” in interest from teenage applicants?

Universities. Overall, the sector has seen a bump both during the pandemic, and even more as we start anticipating its end.

Big Cities. In general, many Ontario institutions seeing big increases in apps are located in or near the GTA. But demographics and geography are not destiny…

Institutions with hot programs credit the right mix of new or existing undergrad programs in Health, IT, Natural Resources, Engineering and Agriculture, as well as newly formed schools that raise the profile of those programs.

Psychology has seen remarkable, and steady, growth in apps. This could be a response to introspection in pandemic isolation, or perhaps a reflection of pretty much universal concerns with mental health and wellness. Silicon Valley and the tech giants have been making off like bandits during the pandemic, so why shouldn’t CompSci programs too?

Health and most things related to it, including Biology, Biomedical Sci, Nursing, Kinesiology and Phys Ed. With the substantial media attention being paid to virologists, epidemiologists, and public health professionals, increasing interest makes sense. And, of course, we’re seeing staffing shortages that may suggest career opportunities ahead.

Nimble digital marketers. Obviously, with the loss of in-person campus visits, the Ontario Universities’ Fair and many high school visits, recruitment teams with engaging websites and social media strategies, solid CRM systems and capable follow-through have been able to grow their apps – and their skill at delivering personal attention online will likely also boost their conversion of those applicants into enrolled students come Fall.



Believe it or not, we’re only halfway through the OUAC motherlode!  Tune in tomorrow for part 2: the institutions and programs appearing to struggle in the face of pandemic “downsides.”



Postscript: January

A couple of eagle-eyed readers have set me straight on some oversights in my survey of CdnPSE Winter Term reopenings earlier this week…


It’s RRC Polytech, duh…

Christian Robin gently reminded me that my spreadsheet (based on an original built early in this pandemic) was still using the former name of RRC Polytechnic. (I don’t know how I missed noticing that… it’s been a long pandemic!)


The King’s U

Glenn Keeler at The King’s  U in Edmonton provided me with information about his institution’s reopening, which was actually in-person as planned on Jan 4. That makes KU notable as the first university in Canada (to my knowledge) to open F2F classrooms that week. (While a couple of colleges had classes, most universities either delayed the start of term, hadn’t been scheduled to start until Jan 10, or were largely virtual.)


I’ve corrected both oversights in the spreadsheet!



Back in the blissful days of late November, before Omicron, Ryerson released a lovely spot for international students…


Your Home Away from Home

Ryerson U packs a lot of warm fuzzies into this 90-sec spot, directed at prospective (and perhaps also incoming) international students. “Halfway around the world, in a country you’ve never seen before, and a city of over 6 million people, there’s a special place that awaits you.” Great visuals are complemented with an almost poetic use of synecdoche: “It’s home to a bench where you’ll have lunch, a patch of grass where you’ll study, and a tree where you’ll nap.” But of course, we move beyond the “3 and a tree” to include more pragmatic features like incubators, office buildings, and makerspaces, as well as experiential benefits of Toronto, from tourist spots and sports to cultural diversity. “And it’s home to people who will walk with you, professors who will inspire your life’s work, and friends you’ll keep long after you’ve graduated.”  I can’t quite put my finger on why, but this spot struck me as really upbeat and appealing!  YouTube



As always, thanks for reading!  I hope you’ll join me tomorrow for part 2 of my little OUAC mining expedition…

Meanwhile, stay safe and be well, everyone!




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