After years of growth, Ontario’s ivory tower enrolment boom is over, as the last of the baby boomers’ kids finish their post-secondary education, but the bust comes just as Queen’s Park prepares to fund up to three new satellite campuses.
For the first time in 15 years, there are fewer new high school grads starting at Ontario campuses this fall: 2.9 per cent per cent fewer at universities and 3.5 per cent fewer at community colleges, according to mid September figures from central application centres in Guelph.
Schools with a focus on the arts were among the hardest hit, from the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCADU) in Toronto to humanities-heavy Wilfrid Laurier in Waterloo and the University of Windsor, plus schools far from the GTA hub like Lakehead in Thunder Bay and Nipissing in North Bay.
Enrolment could slip until after 2020
It’s a slide demographic experts have warned about, noting enrolment should slip until after 2020, when the boomers’ grandchildren begin to land on campus.
“I’ve been shouting about this for years; we’re going to see a 10 per cent drop in post-secondary enrolment over the next 10 years, so now is not the time for new buildings, especially if we’re in an austerity mode,” said economist David Foot, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. “It’s going to be much more difficult to get new (satellite) programs off the ground.”
Yet the province has invited institutions to apply by Sept. 26 to host one of three satellite campuses it hopes to build in areas where demand for higher learning outstrips supply, likely around the GTA, where immigration and intensification should keep demand afloat.
“This will ensure the right spaces are put in the right places, giving more students access to postsecondary education closer to home,” said Zak Paget, spokesperson for Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities.
The drop in high school student enrolment was buffered by a rise from students who have been out of high school for at least a year — on “gap years,” or mature students returning to beef up their resumés. Still, there are some 1,000 fewer first-year students in university in Ontario this fall, an overall drop of 1 per cent, and 2 per cent fewer overall at community college.
York University just unveiled a bid for a satellite campus in Markham, even though acceptances from high school students dropped by 9.8 per cent this year, especially in arts programs, although a 6.8 per cent rise in other applicants softened the blow.
“Fortunately for us, the population of 18- to 21-year-olds in York Region is expected to increase by about 19,000 by 2036, and many of those will need to go to university close to home,” said Rhonda Lenton, vice-president of academic. York also is diversifying programs beyond the arts, she said, so it won’t be as vulnerable to a drop in arts students, citing the example of a new program in emergency and disaster management.
Wilfrid Laurier University has applied for a satellite campus in the boom town of Milton, even though Laurier’s first-year enrolment fell by about 5 per cent, including a 10 per cent plunge in arts students, said vice-president academic Deborah MacLatchy.
“For us the big focus is to try to counter the prevalent feeling that a degree in arts gets a student nowhere, because it’s simply not true,” said MacLatchy. “It provides the critical thinking, collaboration and communications skills that are key in this economy.”
MacLatchy said a small- to mid-size satellite is a “sweet spot” in campus size, “big enough to be full-service, yet not too big that you lose the one-on-one contact.”
OCADU ’s enrolment from high school students fell about 15 per cent, but a rise in other types of students countered the drop, said president Sara Diamond. The university has expanded its emphasis from visual arts to include design and digital media, both fields with rich job markets, but she said it will take time to change some people’s perception of what an art college is.
'Yes we're down, but it's not a crisis'
“Yes we’re down, but it’s not a crisis; it will just take time to reach out to families that maybe haven’t seen design careers as having high employment rates,” said Diamond, whose school has a “start-up incubator” for budding entrepreneurs, and weaves business savvy into much its curriculum.
Bonnie Patterson, president of the Council of Ontario Universities, said institutions have been expecting this slowdown and many are boosting their international student enrolments “as a way to smooth out that demographic blip from now to 2020.”
The University of Windsor was also hit by the drop in interest in arts courses —they make up 45 per cent of its undergraduate programs — as well as the exodus from the Windsor region because of the economic downturn. It also scrapped its concurrent education program, which drew 110 students per year, in order to prepare for the move to two-year teachers’ colleges next year, said David Bussiere, assistant vice-president, records and admissions.
“But we’re seeing more interest in any programs that have a professional component to them, whether it’s social work or psychology.”
The University of Ottawa saw its acceptances from high school students fall about 10.5 per cent, yet this was almost entirely balanced by a surge in applications from Quebec and a tripling of the number of francophone international students, thanks to a new policy under which they pay the same tuition as domestic students.
Foot said the peak of the so-called echo boom, the children of baby boomers, hit in 1991, so those children now are wrapping up their post-secondary studies. The first echo boomers began to have babies of their own in about 2006, he said, and these children should hit post-secondary education age in the early 2020s.
In the meantime, institutions have turned to international students to bolster their ranks, and are recruiting more among groups that typically have not gone to college or university, from low-income students and those with disabilities to aboriginal and rural students.