Eduvation Blog

Gap Year Surprises

Good morning – whether you’re celebrating International Accounting Day, National Notebook Day, or Global Accessibility Awareness Day. (Toronto Metropolitan U is marking the occasion with the launch of a new digital accessibility specialist microcredential.)  

As for me – I’m excited to be addressing McMaster’s Faculty of Science this morning, at their annual faculty and staff retreat. (Perhaps I’ll see some of you there!)

After months researching the impacts of COVID19 on Canadian students, I’m sharing some highlights in a series of posts about “pandemic surprises.” Yesterday (“Surprise, Surprise?”) I started with some examples of NON-surprises, that were in fact predicted by futurists (including me).

If that seemed a bit too self-congratulatory, today I atone with a look at a pandemic surprise that ignored my expectations, and multiple projections based on extensive market research…

Expecting the Apocalypse

In 2020, pandemic uncertainty about personal and family finances, national and international travel, program delivery modes and the nature of on-campus student experiences resulted in widespread speculation that incoming students would put their PSE plans on hold…

Mass Deferrals

Way back in May 2020, the evidence for a surge in deferred PSE enrolment seemed overwhelming, and I felt it was important to bring it to everyone’s attention. I launched the first of a series of Eduvation Bulletins with a meta-analysis of 18 market research studies, assessing the plans of almost 54,000 students. Their distaste for online learning was overwhelming, their anxieties about COVID19 were still in flux, and many of their finances had taken a hit. Almost half of students surveyed were insisting they would take a “gap year” if they couldn’t be sure of a “normal” 2020-21 campus experience. Based on those 18 studies, I concluded that 25-50% of traditional high-school-direct enrolments might be at risk (and even more if their parents were right). The prospects for international students looked even worse. Even retention of existing students looked to be at risk, particularly for colleges. (To be fair, I did point out that non-traditional students might be a very different story, but that no market studies had been done yet.) Based on all sorts of data points, I concluded that “the class of 2024 MAY be one of the smallest in decades.”

“Data gathered from 18 surveys with more than 50,000 respondents indicate that 20-50% of prospective students might be considering a ‘gap year.’”Ken Steele, trusting market research too much, May 2020

A Double Cohort Effect

I caught a bit more attention by going on to speculate that, “IF” enrolment demand dropped as the surveys were indicating, there would be a “rebound effect when the pandemic crisis abates in 2021 or 2022.” (At the time, it was almost heretical to say it would take until 2021 – but 2022 was closer to the truth.) I suggested the enrolment impact could be analogous to Ontario’s 2003-5 “double cohort,” when the province phased out grade 13. Uneven PSE demand across several academic years would pose “unprecedented challenges for college and university administrators, to manage abruptly whiplashing campus capacity and workforce.” (I think pent-up demand could still pose a significant challenge for smaller colleges that downsized in response to enrolment drops, but the problem may not be a universal one.) I remember spending days doing interviews with newspaper and radio reporters who were captivated by the prospect of another double cohort. I was particularly gratified that David Trick, then interim CEO at HEQCO, took my idea and ran with it.

“The double cohort of 2003 was nothing like a pandemic, but the way it was handled offers some promising ideas for how to handle a problem that may arise in 2021.” – David Trick, then interim CEO, HEQCO, writing in April 2020

Ultimately, though, the exercise taught us all that self-reported INTENTIONS in focus groups and surveys are highly unreliable forecasts of actual BEHAVIOUR. After a long COVID summer stuck at home, students’ absolute rejection of online learning waned somewhat…

Delaying Strategies

Comprehensive national data won’t be available from Statistics Canada for years yet, but as you may have noticed, most CdnPSEs did NOT experience a catastrophic enrolment apocalypse in Fall 2020. (Some hands-on programs might beg to differ.) That doesn’t mean that the pandemic had NO effect, of course…  

Victory Laps

Early in the pandemic, it was expected that some grade 12 students would take “victory laps” in high school, postponing graduation to take additional courses and perhaps improve on math and science grades that suffered during emergency remote instruction. Many teenagers were complaining bitterly about the loss of senior prom and graduation ceremonies, and might be expected to postpone PSE for the prospect of normalcy in 2021. (Certainly, that’s what happened with Ontario’s double cohort.) So far, I haven’t seen any solid data on how many Canadian high school students opted to postpone graduation for a “victory lap” year in 2020 or 2021. There was media coverage and plenty of anecdotal evidence about victory laps. Some high schools and school boards even promoted the option as “Grade 12+,” an opportunity to accumulate mandatory volunteering hours, improve required courses or explore additional electives.


“I realized that if my last two years of high school are going to be like this, I need to go slow and do things when I’m not in a rush.”Sydney Kam, Toronto high school student planning a victory lap, May 2021


Gap Years

Although many students take an informal, self-directed year off, formal “gap year” programs have long been common in the UK, Europe and Australia as a means for self-exploration, cultural immersion, and work experience after high school. Even pre-pandemic, they were growing more popular in North America: structured educational, work, volunteer and travel programs are offered by hundreds of colleges and commercial providers, and Colorado College even hosts a Gap Year Research Consortium. In 2020, as high school students graduated with virtual or non-existent ceremonies after months of online classes, it seemed inevitable that many would opt to delay the start of college or university until they could be certain it would not be more of the same. Travel restrictions and public health measures would preclude the usual travel or employment experiences, but online gap year alternatives proliferated.

Deferral Requests

Some US colleges reported that gap year deferral requests tripled in summer 2020. Harvard reported that 20% of its incoming freshman class deferred until 2021. In the UK, undergraduate deferrals rose 9% in 2020 and a further 6% in 2021, to levels 16% higher than pre-pandemic (about 6% of all placed applicants). In Canada, most institutions were faced with hundreds of deferral requests for Fall 2020, many from international applicants. The Canadian Gap Year Association reported its web traffic tripled. A SchoolFinder survey found that 17% of incoming students – and 19% of returning ones – thought a gap year “made a lot of sense.” Deferral requests at uToronto jumped 60%, and they rose 35% at Ryerson. In 2021, facing a 4th wave of the pandemic and uncertainty about the planned return to campus, Ontario universities reported that deferral requests were high for a second straight year. Sadly, most of those students will never return to PSE: a US study of 8,400 high schools found that 98% of the “unusually large” number of grads who took a gap year in Fall 2020 showed “no signs” of returning one year later.

Stop Outs

During the pandemic, more vulnerable students dropped out or “stopped out” of PSE for a range of financial, medical, and academic reasons. US data showed that PSE “stop-outs” increased 5.2% in Fall 2020, a marked reversal from declines prior to the pandemic – and rose at twice that rate among Latinx students (+12%). While 81% of university students persisted, just 58% of community college students did so – an “unprecedented” drop in student persistence, down 3.5% from 2019. (Part-time student persistence dropped even further, to 45.8%.) A Fall 2020 survey found that 19% of US college students were “seriously considering” not attending college in Jan 2021. Most UK universities were assuming increased drop-out rates, due to online learning, job losses, and the elimination of A-level exams. Again, I have not yet seen solid data on CdnPSE drop-outs during the pandemic. Several Quebec CEGEPs reported that the drop-out rate had actually improved slightly in 2020 compared to 2019. With lower tuition “sticker prices” for CdnPSE students, many appear to have persisted into college or university despite the prospect of remote learning, and a disappointing campus experience. But for those who did choose to drop out, the odds are not promising: US statistics have found that only 13% of college dropouts return to their studies within 5 years, and only one-quarter of those persist to graduation. Those who “stop out” are just kidding themselves: they are dropping out.

Taking It Slow

In a sense, enrolling in PSE part-time is also a strategy that delays graduation – and one that many CdnPSE students embraced in the pandemic…

Part-Time Pre-COVID

CdnPSE enrolls many students in non-credit, con ed, and apprenticeship programs that are explicitly part-time, but as of 2016 about three-quarters of students pursuing degree or diploma programs were registered as full-time. Over the past decade, full-time enrolment growth has been triple the rate of part-time at Canada’s universities, but colleges have experienced the opposite trend: part-time has grown more than twice as fast as full-time. In the US, part-time college demand is even greater: 61% of students at 2-year institutions enroll part-time. More and more CdnPSE students registered full-time are actually juggling off-campus family and work responsibilities: the proportion of full-time students who were also working at paid employment more than doubled between 1977-2008, to more than half. (These students register full-time because academic programs or financial aid are inflexible in their design, or because they hope to minimize their time to graduation, but their time and attention is divided, they devote less time to homework than ever, and institutions struggle to engage them outside of class.)

Pandemic Impact

During the pivot to remote and hybrid instruction in 2020-21, many undergraduate students took lighter course loads and enrolled part-time, for both financial and academic benefits, as well as wellness and work/life balance concerns. In May 2020, almost a third of CdnPSE students said they had considered or switched to part-time study. That Fall, several universities announced significant spikes in part-time enrolments, including uManitoba (+18%). Atlantic Universities reported a 20% increase in part-time enrolments, led by Cape Breton U (+166%), Mount Allison (+130%), and substantial increases at StFX and UNB. Nationally, Universities Canada reported that part-time enrolments were up 4.5% overall, and largely responsible for maintaining stable student headcounts. The trend seemed to continue for Winter 2021 at Memorial U, where part-time enrolments rose 32% in St. John’s, and 67% at the Grenfell Campus. By Fall 2021, however, Atlantic universities saw half of the pandemic wave subside: part-time undergraduate enrolments declined by 10.6% overall, although Dalhousie University nonetheless saw a 13.4% increase. (Many Atlantic universities had promised students a return to on-campus instruction for Fall 2021.) Ultimately, the pandemic surge in part-time enrolments lasted just one year, during 2020-21, and subsided quickly with the prospect of a return to campus in Fall 2021.

Of course, part-time study remains attractive to older working adults, who started pursuing online learning and microcredentials during the pandemic. More on them another day!



As so many campuses celebrate their graduates at in-person convocations once more, there has been a flurry of livestreamed ceremonies, presidential well-wishes, and mascot silliness in my YouTube feed. Here’s one that caught my eye – and put quite a  few tears in it, too!


Letters from Home

USC’s Dornsife College (Los Angeles) shared a 4-min vid last week that surprised several graduating students with heartfelt letters from their moms and dads. As they take turns reading passages aloud, we hear the parental pride and nostalgia, and see the students themselves moved by the words. “You have been delighting us since the day you were born.” “It doesn’t seem long ago that I was consoling a hysterically-sobbing 5-year-old who was furious with his little brother for creating a road out of his periodic table cards.” It’s an effective idea, worth stealing!  YouTube



As always, thanks for reading!

Please do let me know if you’ve seen data to support or refute what I’ve gathered above, about deferrals or part-time status at your institution or others. Pandemic repercussions remain a moving target, just like the pandemic itself!

I won’t add to your inbox on the Friday of the Victoria Day weekend – so I’ll see you back here on Tuesday.

I hope you enjoy some fine spring weather, and of course – stay safe and be well!


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