Entry Points for Mature Learners: HEQCO and OCAS Partner to Explore COVID Impacts on College Applicants

A collaborative study of OCAS’ 2021 Applicant Experience and Intention Survey reveals that remote work and school have created key entry points for mature learners at Ontario colleges. HEQCO and OCAS will continue to investigate Applicant Survey data to help better understand the pandemic’s continued impact on learning preferences.

Author: Jackie Pichette


When Ontario colleges and universities shifted from mostly in-person to mostly online learning delivery, they triggered a mass experiment in education. HEQCO saw this as an opportunity to explore how online delivery might affect postsecondary access and success for specific groups of learners. Researchers across the world are already taking advantage of this opportunity and finding the shift online may have opened doors for mature, neurodivergent and low-income learners. For mature learners especially, labour market disruptions and remote working arrangements may be pushing those doors wide open.

To better understand the pandemic’s impact on prospective college students, in Nov. 2021 HEQCO partnered with OCAS: a not-for-profit organization delivering shared technology and centralized application services for Ontario’s public colleges. Both organizations were eager to draw evidence from existing data sources to help navigate the pandemic’s impacts (and, to help navigate ongoing disruptions such as automation, globalization and demographic changes — all of which have implications for education).

Our first collaboration began by outlining key parameters in a data-sharing agreement. We then worked together to modify OCAS’ 2021 Applicant Experience and Intention Survey, administered in the spring to applicants for upcoming fall programs. We co-developed questions on the pandemic’s impacts on learning preferences and application plans. OCAS linked survey responses with basic demographic information and shared depersonalized and aggregated data with HEQCO. This allowed HEQCO researchers to explore whether (and how) impacts varied by characteristics like age and employment status, providing valuable insights to inform strategic planning at both OCAS and at Ontario colleges. It’s an exciting example of the kind of secure and productive data-sharing collaborations educational partners can and should be building in the absence of a provincial data infrastructure.

HEQCO’s analysis of OCAS’ applicant survey results, available on our website as Remote Opportunities for Adult Learners: Analyzing Ontario College Application Data During COVID-19, revealed that remote work and school have indeed created entry points for mature learners in Ontario. HEQCO coded explanations from survey respondents who said they applied to college sooner than expected. Many of these applicants cited “unemployment” and/or an “increase in time and availability” as reasons for their early application. Mature applicants (aged 25 and older) generally considered themselves more open to online learning than they were before the pandemic, as did respondents who were working full-time. Our findings align with other Ontario media reports, suggesting mature learners are capitalizing on a combination of more leisure time and the flexibility of online learning to access postsecondary.

Our findings, which also include insights about students applying directly from high school, remind us that colleges should pause before returning to ‘normal.’ If responses to OCAS’ 2021 Applicant Survey show a growing openness to online learning among adults, colleges should keep this in mind as they strive to optimize the distribution of online and in-person course offerings in future semesters. With or without pandemic-restrictions, learners who prefer a virtual learning environment should be able to select courses in that format. As previous HEQCO research illustrates, having flexibility and choice benefits all learners.

These findings are just the first to come from a productive partnership between HEQCO and OCAS. In the year ahead, HEQCO and OCAS will work together again to examine results of the 2022 Applicant Experience and Intentions Survey, this time including questions about accessibility needs and more nuanced questions about online learning (e.g., to understand whether students prefer fully online, hybrid or blended courses and in what combination). This data will allow us to better understand the pandemic’s ongoing impact on learning preferences and how these vary by demographic characteristics — positioning colleges to offer programs and services that are attuned to student needs.

Stay tuned for our 2022 follow-up report and more HEQCO/OCAS collaborations in the future.

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