David Trick – Finding precedents for the unprecedented (part 1): A new double cohort?

David Trick is interim president and CEO of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

Current circumstances have caused us at HEQCO to think about whether anything in the history of Ontario higher education might be remotely relevant today. Historical analogies can give comfort that, having solved problems in the past, we can solve comparable problems now.

Ken Steele has made an interesting analogy: If many students take the coming academic year off and return in September 2021, will the situation be like the double cohort of students who entered Ontario higher education in September 2003?

Surveys (see here and here) of U.S. high school students in late March suggest that between 17% and 20% of those planning to attend a four-year university program in September 2020 were already considering taking a gap year or making other plans instead. These students could be the leading edge of a wave. How attractive will it be to sign up for an academic year that may start online, move to campus later and be at risk of unpredictable stay-home orders?

If this wave of thinking spreads to Ontario, it raises the question of whether universities and colleges may face an extra-large number of domestic applicants for September 2021, as the gap-year students return to the fold.

That brings us to the double cohort. The Ontario government decided in 1999 to proceed with a new secondary school curriculum that in effect eliminated Grade 13. The last students under the old curriculum and the first students under the new 12-year curriculum both graduated from secondary school in June 2003, creating two cohorts of students seeking to enter university or college at the same time. (As Ken points out, student behaviour was actually a little more complicated than that.)

To the extent that the government and the higher education system succeeded in accommodating the double cohort, these factors were essential:

  1. There was four years’ advance notice.
  2. The university sector and the college sector, through their respective associations, each agreed to establish a working group with the government to plan for the double cohort.
  3. Student behaviour was sufficiently predictable that future enrolments could be modelled with some confidence.
  4. The enrolment projections showed that enrolments would grow sharply in 2002 and 2003. They also showed that, even after the double cohort graduated, enrolments would remain high due to underlying trends.
  5. These projections led the government to commit over $900 million for new buildings.
  6. The government agreed to provide full funding for the additional students.
  7. The universities and colleges agreed to accommodate the increased number of applicants, rather than taking the opportunity to skim the cream.

Is any of the policy framework from the 2003 double cohort applicable in current circumstances? We can rule out Numbers 1 and 5: We do not have four years’ notice, and we do not have time to build more buildings, even if they were needed.

Some of the other elements of the 2003 policy framework may hold promise in preparing for 2021:

  • Number 2 was a pretty good idea. Establishing university and college working groups gave anxious parents some confidence that qualified people were working together to solve a high-profile problem. It reduced the temptation for the institutions and the government to communicate with each other through the media. It gave each institution’s president some confidence that he or she would not be outfoxed by a more entrepreneurial colleague.
  • Number 3 – modelling future student enrolment – is not possible today, but it will become more possible when data on the first round of student applications for September 2021 becomes known this winter.
  • Number 4 shows the importance of linking the short term and the medium term. How you handle the short term can open up options for the medium term, or it can inadvertently close them off.
  • Number 6 is the government’s best tool for ensuring that universities and colleges make room for qualified applicants. But providing full funding for additional enrolments will require some big tweaks in the new funding models.
  • Number 7 may be a test for our system. If September 2021 sees a big increase in applications from domestic students and also from international students, there may be some tough discussions about who should have priority.

(Full disclosure: I was the assistant deputy minister for postsecondary education when planning took place for the 2003 double cohort. To the extent that the policy succeeded, credit should go to the very smart people I worked with in government, and to the equally smart partners in universities and colleges.)

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.

Other analogies from the past may also be relevant. More on that next week.

David Trick is interim president and CEO of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

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