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Mining OUAC Data 2: Pandemic Downsides

Good morning!

Today is the UN’s International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, lest we forget.

As promised, though, today I am sharing part 2 of my expedition into the latest applications data from Ontario universities, released last week. In particular, I’m looking at shifts in app volumes (a proxy for popularity) across 2 years of the pandemic, using mid-January 101s, the largest pool of applications in Canada.

ICYMI, be sure to read part 1 for my caveats about data limitations, and of course the “Pandemic Upsides.”



Hard-Hit Subjects

Yesterday I outlined how the pandemic appears to have fuelled a surge in HS-direct undergraduate applications (OUAC 101s) of 10.9% overall, and that subjects related to Health, Computer science and Psychology enjoyed a significant boost during the pandemic. In a sense, program groups seeing less than 10% growth are therefore losing popularity among teenage applicants…


Business is Still Busy

It’s hard to really argue that undergraduate Business programs are “hard-hit” by the pandemic, when they are the single largest cluster of apps (18% of the total in 2022), and nonetheless grew by about 7% since 2020. If they’re losing any ground at all, it is likely because international applications are still suppressed by pandemic impacts on travel and borders. (While most international applicants are 105s, not 101s, those studying in Ontario high schools have impacted this January’s numbers, according to several registrars.)


Alas, Poor Yorick!

As a 3-time English major, you can expect me to bemoan the steady decline of undergraduate enrolments in the Liberal Arts, Languages and Linguistics. Last January I underscored the 10% decline in Liberal Arts and 14% decline in Languages as a frustrating sign the pandemic was doing nothing to change the long-term trend, although I’m pleased to say this year’s numbers show an almost-complete rebound, at least for the former. (Languages and Linguistics have sadly lost the most ground during the pandemic, although most of it occurred last year.) Considering the whole pool of apps rose 10%, that means the Humanities has still effectively lost ground, and Languages substantially more. Come this Fall, enrolments will likely continue their multi-year slide.

This pandemic repeatedly frustrates my optimism that the global crisis will spark renewed interest in ethics and philosophy, eloquence and critical thinking, politics and social justice. I’ve argued before that I think the Liberal Arts will eventually bounce back, as proliferating automation and narrow AIs underscore the vital importance of what is uniquely human, ethical, and expressive – but it hasn’t happened yet! (See for instance my Ten with Ken on “Interdisciplinarity and Soft Skills.”) This month’s stats suggest that the Social Sciences are experiencing similar setbacks during the pandemic, although to a lesser degree. Interest in Journalism programs has long been waning due to widespread perceptions that career opportunities are evaporating there. Clearly Modern Language departments need to reconsider how they design and package their undergraduate programs. If they aren’t successful, we’re going to be entering a profoundly “illiterate” era for humanity…


Studio Programs

Over the course of the pandemic, apps have declined quite sharply to programs in Music and Fine Arts. The major drop in 2021 made a lot of sense, considering that studio and performance courses were pivoting online. Innovative faculty and flexible students came up with some creative solutions, like Zoom plays and remote concerts, but ultimately some prospective students were likely persuaded to apply elsewhere, or to wait out the pandemic. While apps to Fine Arts have rebounded to almost pre-pandemic levels, though, Music apps remain 15% below where they were in 2020. This may reflect the pandemic’s devastating impact on the careers and incomes of most performers, as health restrictions shut down concerns and choirs for much of the past 2 years.



Hard-Hit Institutions

Just as institutions with the fastest-growing apps credit hot program areas, those losing ground with HS students are going to be influenced by program offerings too. And remember, it’s not necessarily bad news for an institution to get fewer applications – they can still enroll a full entering cohort through higher conversion efforts. What declining 101 apps do suggest, though, is that a university is becoming less popular with teenage applicants. Over the course of the pandemic, these are the Ontario universities whose 101 apps have not kept pace with the provincewide average…



Reputational Hits

As I mentioned yesterday, I think of 101 app volumes as a real-time barometer of university brand reputation in the teenage student market. Some of the hardest-hit institutions have experienced substantial negative press coverage during the pandemic, so their declining apps are probably not attributable to the pandemic…


Laurentian’s Implosion

Laurentian U continues to be the worst off since the pandemic began – which is hardly surprising, considering the self-imposed hit their reputation and programs have taken since last Groundhog Day. Poor uHearst has been dragged down by the decisions of the LU board, and the unilateral dissolution of the federation agreement. (Even now, though, Hearst’s 101 apps exceed those to the struggling new UOF.) The mess at Laurentian isn’t really a pandemic effect (although the board blames COVID19 for some of their financial situation), but nonetheless since this time in 2020, Laurentian’s 101 apps are down 45% – almost half – from 5,081 to just 2,791. (In fact, those 2,290 “lost” apps are more than all the other “app losers” combined!) To some extent, this bilingual institution might be impacted a little by declining interest in Languages (see above), but that probably doesn’t explain much of it. (uOttawa gained 15% after all.) President Robert Haché says the drop is “disappointing but not unexpected, given the uncertainties of the restructuring process,” and adds that, “we are confident that the hard and necessary work we are doing today will pave the way to a stronger, financially viable Laurentian that will be more responsive to the needs of our students and our community.” (Thanks to comms officer Sarah de Blois for getting me the statement.) I’ll revisit the latest developments at LU in a future issue, but suffice it to say, I think the board made a rash decision to invoke the CCAA process, without truly comprehending the lasting impact on reputation and enrolment that would have.

Ripple effects in the north might have contributed a little bit to app increases at Algoma, uOttawa, and Trent (see my discussion yesterday), and could even have cushioned the app declines a bit at Lakehead and Nipissing – but there’s no data yet to prove that one way or the other.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint – and with the recent show of support from the Province in the future of Laurentian, we are optimistic we will see growing interest and applications over time.” – Robert Haché, president, Laurentian U



Western’s Black Eye

What’s been happening at my (undergrad) alma mater may be largely attributable to bad news headlines as well. In 2020, Western had some high-profile COVID19 outbreaks in residence, but nothing to dissuade 101 apps. In 2021, though, unfortunate acts of off-campus violence and homecoming street parties created town/gown friction. And perhaps more disturbing to Gen Z applicants, reports (still under investigation but officially unsubstantiated) of mass druggings and sexual assaults in residence garnered lurid headlines last Fall – just as the application cycle began. (ICYMI, I devoted an issue to “Anatomy of an Outbreak” in Sept 2020, and of course “Parties, Protests & Politics” in Sept 2021.) With the majority of applicants being female, a massive student walkout and accusations of “rape culture” are going to have an impact, however unfairly.

Don’t get me wrong: Western remains a really attractive institution, and I don’t just mean its beautiful campus. Only 6 other Ontario universities attracted more 101 apps this year, and all but Queen’s are considerably closer to the densely-populated GTA. Last year, Western’s 101 apps rose 6%, almost 3x the provincewide average. But this year, apps to Western actually dropped 3% while the rest of the system rose by 11%, meaning that it lost ground (comparatively), despite having strong programs in most of the popular areas. The timing of this hit to app volumes suggests this is more about the negative press coverage in 2021, than the pandemic itself.


Western’s Affiliates

Western’s affiliated colleges, on the other hand, suffered drops in 101 apps in both years, which may reflect Western’s negative press coverage compounding what I called the “Amazon Effect” last year. (Much like what’s happened in retail, larger US schools with stronger brands have been gaining enrolment during the pandemic, while smaller ones with less online presence or infrastructure are losing ground. In the US, some of that has been driven by SAT-optional admission changes, and many apps to Ivy League schools are just curious “tire-kicking.”) In the midst of a pandemic last year, many of the main benefits of a smaller campus may have lost some significance to 101 applicants, and Western may have gained at the affiliates’ expense. This month’s 101 apps suggest they are all losing ground now: Huron is down 24% since this time in 2020, Brescia down 16%, and King’s down 14%.

But of course, these statistics only tell part of the story…

Brescia UC registrar Melanie Molnar notes that the personal connections made during in-person recruitment activities and campus visits have always been key drivers for enrolment. “As campus returns to a more ‘pre-pandemic’ feel, we look forward to hosting applicants and families on campus safely to support personalized interactions and promote the benefits of being an affiliate student at Brescia.” (As I reported last week, things are looking up for Fall 2022, and with any luck there will be another in-person Ontario University Fair.)

“As a women’s university, we are confident that our mission is more important than ever. The pandemic highlighted the ongoing trends of inequality, and so we must work together and support Brescia’s future for students who will be leaders contributing to positive change for all of us.” – Lauretta Conklin Frederking, president, Brescia UC


Huron UC recruitment director Meagan Vande Vooren further explains that their OUAC decrease in 101 apps is primarily among international students in private high schools in the GTA, whose apps have declined 57% since 2020. “Although this is a loss in applications, the acceptance rate is low, so the effect on our enrolment is minimal.” Moreover, through concerted recruitment efforts Huron has tripled the number of direct apps from out-of-province students since 2019 – so OUAC’s stats don’t tell the whole story. Overall, Huron’s apps are actually UP slightly from last year, and their student population has doubled since 2017.

King’s UC registrar Tracy Cunningham notes that they have been seeing many students applying after the Jan deadline, “wondering and waiting to see what the impact of the pandemic was going to be on their school experience for the upcoming year.” As a result, “applications are quite fluid at this time of year.” She adds, “the actual good news story is that we were able to successfully achieve our enrolment targets in both the 2020 and 2021 admissions cycles, as students continued to choose the unique campus experience of studying at King’s.”

“Many students have been applying to us later than the January deadline the last couple of years; wondering and waiting to see what the impact of the pandemic was going to be on their school experience for the upcoming year.” – Tracy Cunningham, registrar, King’s UC


“The pandemic forced us to get creative with recruitment, and over the past two years we have found ways to create and maintain the close personal connections we had previously developed with in-person recruitment and conversion activities.” – Tracy Cunningham, registrar, King’s UC



The Amazon Effect

The Amazon effect probably explains why just 2 of the smaller Ontario universities made it into yesterday’s “upside” list (Algoma and Ontario Tech). Otherwise, ALL schools attracting fewer than 10,000 apps are included in today’s “downside” list, and account for ALL of the 9 hardest-hit. In addition to the Western affiliates and Laurentian, these include…

U Guelph-Humber hasn’t lost as much ground this year as last, but is still down 12% from Jan 2020. I’m certainly curious to know what’s behind this – the trend towards hybrid collaborations like York-Seneca and Guelph-Humber seems on its surface to offer students “the best of both worlds.” Perhaps the pandemic challenge for Ontario colleges has something to do with it, since uGuelph itself has done very well (see yesterday).

Nipissing U is the only other university whose apps have dropped significantly since 2020, but they lost most of their ground last year. As a school best known for its Education and Nursing programs (both growing subject areas in the pandemic), I would expect their numbers to have risen on that basis – but it is also a small institution, known for personalized service and relationships. Registrar Debra Iafrate explains that Nipissing’s campus visit programs and in-person recruitment events have always been powerful influencers: “personal contact through fairs and visits is very important in our recruitment strategies and in generating applications. The pandemic has particularly influenced our 101 applications – pandemic era students seem to have been drawn to more familiar institutions in the more densely populated areas in Ontario. However, our reputation for second entry degrees or 105 students has served us well, as we are generating applications well above our pre-pandemic numbers.”

“Our students know us for our personalized service and close relationships with staff. We are also known for our beautiful campus… Personal contact through fairs and visits is very important in our recruitment strategies and in generating applications.” – Debra Iafrate, registrar, Nipissing U


“The pandemic has particularly influenced our 101 applications… However, our reputation for second entry degrees or 105 students has served us well, as we are generating applications well above our pre-pandemic numbers.” – Debra Iafrate, registrar, Nipissing U


Other universities apparently losing just a couple of percent in 101 apps, compared to Jan 2020, include Windsor, Lakehead, and Carleton – although all 3 grew their apps this year over last, so again the losses occurred back in 2021. (I know, Carleton is substantially larger, and takes us up into 10th place.)

OCAD U is a small school that deserves big kudos for reversing last year’s loss, and then some! Jan 101 apps were down 11% in 2021, but jumped 16% this year, more than making up the loss. This may reflect student optimism about a return to studio classes for Fall 2022, but strategic comms officer Natalie Pavlenko observes it could also be testimony to the success of OCAD’s new admissions website, “which is highly focused on the prospective student journey and storytelling,” and OCAD’s “Get paid to do what you love” recruitment ad campaign, now in its 3rd year. (The campaign featured 6 successful alumni from a diversity of disciplines, and ran on digital platforms, social media, transit and outdoor.) Natalie also points out that last year’s decline in 101s could be partly explained by the high proportion of international students in OCAD’s pool, pre-pandemic.



Ontario Colleges

I mentioned yesterday that Ontario universities overall seem to have benefited from the pandemic, attracting 11% more HS-direct apps since 2020. We don’t have solid data yet, but what clues I can unearth suggest that the past 2 years have been much harder on Ontario colleges…


US Community Colleges

American community colleges operate in a somewhat different environment, but we know they have experienced catastrophic enrolment declines during the pandemic, while most universities were stable or even growing. The National Student Clearinghouse reports that the US sector saw enrolment (not just applications) drop 9.4% in Fall 2020, and that deepened to a 14.8% drop by Fall 2021, compared to pre-pandemic. (Financial impacts on the at-risk demographics served by American community colleges weren’t cushioned by the CERB or CESB programs we had in Canada, and of course anxieties over healthcare in the US made the pandemic even more terrifying.)


Canadian Colleges

While the US Department of Education (NCES) and National Student Clearinghouse provide comprehensive data on PSE enrolments in almost real-time, here in Canada it’s much tougher to monitor national trends. The latest Statistics Canada data available, released just 2 months ago, is for enrolments in 2019-20 – before the pandemic. (Sigh.) I’ve been doing my best to monitor individual institutional announcements, good or bad, and have often included them in the Insider. (I tried summing up a whole crop of them in my Fall 2020 CdnPSE Enrolment recap.) Of course, there are way more positive media releases than negative ones, so we’re getting a slanted picture. Overall, it seems that domestic and foreign enrolments at most Canadian universities were stable or growing during the pandemic (whether courses were delivered online or not), although many more students were enrolling part-time, at least in Fall 2020. Canadian colleges seemed to be telling quite another story, with widely divergent enrolments depending upon geographic location, programs, promised mode of delivery and online infrastructure. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the hardest-hit matched the US experience.


Ontario Colleges

Ontario’s 24 public colleges have a shared application centre, OCAS, which actually enrolls more full-time first-year students each Fall than the universities do. But since 78% of college applicants are non-direct (what OUAC would call 105s); OCAS reports about 50,000 HS-direct applicants each year, compared to about 90,000 at OUAC. And over the years, grade 12 graduates have been increasingly likely to steer towards universities, rather than colleges: Colleges Ontario reported in 2021 that HS-direct applicants provincewide have declined steadily since their peak in 2013, by a cumulative 34% – and 10% of that decline occurred in Fall 2020 alone. In Fall 2021, as Ontario universities saw 101 apps rise 2.4%, it sounds like the colleges saw a systemwide drop of as much as 35%. (This is a loose estimate, based on a media report that total college apps dropped 6% in 2021, while non-direct apps – the vast majority – rose 2.6%.)

Certainly all indications are that the colleges’ loss was the universities’ gain during the pandemic.


Will there be a Rebound?

It seems inescapable that some prospective students held off on pursuing more hands-on college programs in the midst of the pandemic. Unlike more theoretical university courses, many college classes and labs did not translate well to remote delivery, and many “stranded students” were left awaiting an opportunity to complete necessary coursework back in 2020. If 2020 and 2021 high school grads deferred college enrolment due to COVID19, the pent-up demand may just cause a surge in non-direct apps this year. (Assuming, of course, that things continue to look promising for Fall 2022.) And of course, we may see a rebound in HS-direct apps, for the same reason.

Who knows? Colleges might yet see a sort of “double cohort” effect, once this pandemic is done! The OCAS “equal consideration” deadline for HS-direct apps is next week, so we may soon get some inklings…



Pandemic Downsides

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

Smaller schools. That Amazon effect steers more applicants towards big brands and big campuses – which is why all but 2 of the small schools experienced a drop in 101s over the pandemic, and they were the 9 hardest-hit.

Hands-on programs. The pandemic has been rough on Music, Fine Arts, and many community college programs – and certainly made things challenging for OCAD and Windsor. The college impacts may even have affected Guelph-Humber apps.

Anxieties multiplied. It’s tough to say whether heightened anxieties in the pandemic have made students even jumpier about institutions with negative headlines or safety concerns, but it seems logical. This may have held back growth in 101 apps to Western and Ryerson, and certainly Laurentian.

Distant campuses. We don’t have data to prove that applicant mobility in Ontario has dropped during the pandemic, but it has in the US. And we can say that, across 2 years of pandemic, 5 out of 8 universities located within the GTHA have seen above-average increases in 101 apps. (The exceptions are OCAD, Ryerson and Guelph-Humber.)

International enrolments. Obviously, enrolment of off-shore students has suffered from uncertainties and delays in travel, border closures, visa processing and more. But as several schools indicated, that has impacted apps from onshore international students too, who would otherwise show up as 101s.


So to the marketers and recruiters who not only survived the turbulence and disruption of the pandemic, but also confronted (and often overcame) these intense pandemic downsides: you should feel justifiably proud of every inch you gained, or avoided losing, during the past 2 years.

And feel hopeful that better times lie ahead!




Today, let me share another in my series of “cool profs in video,” from a Shakespearean at St Thomas U…


It’s All in the Editing

Great Books Prof Andrew Moore has published 68 short and highly watchable video lectures to his YouTube channel in the past 18 months, covering political philosophy, great books, essay writing and study skills, and much else. Most run 1-7 min in length, and quite deliberately feel more like YouTube than lecture, with jump cuts, sound effects and quick intercut jokes. The vids have incredibly flashy thumbnails and intriguing titles like “Novels are Weird,” “Who Controls the Metaverse?” or “Understand Hamlet in 2 Minutes.” Andrew says he’s “worked very hard at cracking the video lecture genre” and it shows: the channel has 1,530 subscribers, and the most popular vid (“Foucault Power and Knowledge”) has 11,000 views! (Not bad for a 7-month-old.) Several vids specifically offer tips to academics who want to create engaging video lectures, explaining that “what you typically do in a classroom does not translate well to video,” and that ultimately, you have to devote time to aggressive editing.  YouTube



As always, thanks for reading!

It’s been a really intense couple of weeks for me, producing a 4-part summary of a month’s worth of the pandemic last week, and 2 in-depth analyses this week, of January reopening plans and now OUAC application statistics.

So I hope you’ll forgive me if I take tomorrow off! I’m looking forward to spending the morning with McMaster’s management group, and then we’ll see what I write about for next week…

Have a great weekend, and stay safe out there!


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