Enrollment is increasing despite COVID-19 according to UW

Graphic by Riley Stevens

UW says it has increasing fall enrollment numbers, despite the indication that students may be rethinking their plans to attend university this September due to COVID-19 concerns.

Rebecca Elming, Manager of Media Relations at UW said that acceptance as of the June 2020 deadline was 8816 incoming full and part-time students, up from last year.

UW’s website on institutional planning and analysis indicates that 8,235 full-time and part-time first-year students were attending classes in the fall of 2019. Of those, only 1,477 were international students.

But a survey jointly commissioned in March by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) conveys a different story. It indicated that a significant number of students were reconsidering their plans for university and college for the fall term. Both the CFS and CAUT said they were expecting lower enrollment numbers this fall. 

UW said that the fall 2020 deferral requests were similar to 2019, but wouldn’t say if they were lower or higher. 

According to Elming, “Our numbers are almost the same as last year at this time. We have 150 deferral requests so far. The stated deadline to apply for a deferral is August 1. In terms of final fall enrollment number, there is no hard and fast date, but they are expected towards the end of September.” Elming explained that students can defer admission to January, May, or next September by submitting a deferral request.  

“Deferral procedures have not changed during COVID-19 and are dependent on faculty and program,” Elming elaborated.

According to CAUT, their survey indicated that seven in ten students said that their summer employment plans were negatively affected by COVID-19 and 30 percent of returning and new students might change their plans to enroll at a post-secondary institution for the fall term. 

In the same survey, one in two students also stated that COVID-19 has made it more difficult to afford tuition and living costs, while over two-thirds of students said that their personal finances and those of their parents or family were affected by the pandemic.

Sofia Descalzi, National Chairperson for the CFS, noted that this survey was conducted from April 23 to May 1 and that 1,100 Canadian high school seniors and current post-secondary students, including international students, participated.  

“The findings were that students are being affected by the COVID-19 crisis economically and that this will affect their ability to return to school in the fall,”  Descalzi said.

Lisa Kellar, Communications Officer for CAUT, remarked that enrollment and the impact of it will vary from institution to institution, therefore, this survey showed that “both cost and experience were significant factors for new and returning students’ to be able to attend college or university in the fall.”

According to Kellar, the pandemic has impacted everyone, including international students, new students, and returning students at all levels.

Descalzi said that for international students, “the cost of tuition fees is even more prohibitive, and closing borders are making it harder for them to physically come to Canada.”  

However, she added  that the survey did not break down the number of students reconsidering their fall semester by level of studies but it did indicate that “women, people of colour, and international students were more likely to reconsider their plans to attend university,” citing the cost of tuition as “a major barrier to attend school in the fall.”

According to Descalzi, the COVID-19 crisis has put a lot of pressure on post-secondary students.

“They have to contend with rising tuition fees, fewer job opportunities, and the move to online classes,” Descalzi said. “Also, having access to on-campus resources like the library, study spaces, mental health support, disability support, networking opportunities, interactions with peers and professors, clubs and societies, and student politics, will have a great impact on their experiences.”

In addition, “many students do not have access to reliable internet or adequate resources for online learning like a computer, a webcam, and a microphone at home. Some students have children and it may be difficult for them to focus on courses when they are also providing childcare,” Descalzi said.

Descalzi also believes that high tuition costs are a massive problem. The survey reported that 85 percent of those reconsidering their plans for the fall said that reducing or eliminating tuition costs would be helpful.

“For decades, tuition fees in Canada have been increasing at alarming rates,” Students have to take on insurmountable levels of debt to pursue their studies. The cost of tuition is one of the biggest barriers to enrollment for young people. This, compounded with the fact that a majority of students were not able to work a full-time job this summer… and with classes moving online, will be the main driver of lower enrollment at Canadian universities.” 

CAUT cautioned that lower enrollment this fall would also mean lower revenue for institutions, which could lead to program losses, job losses, and fewer student support. CAUT also noted that support staff and contract academic staff at universities and colleges are already experiencing layoffs as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Furthermore, workers in the post-secondary sector, like many other Canadians, are worried about their jobs.

Elming reminds students that, at UW, there are many supports and different initiatives in place for incoming students, including Waterloo Ready, a new resource designed to “connect incoming students with the Waterloo community in this unique, mostly online fall university experience.”

CAUT notes that any limit to accessing post-secondary education would be a missed opportunity for Canada. According to Kellar, “Post-secondary education changes lives, strengthens the economy and is key to a bright future for all Canadians. This is why CAUT is continuing to push for federal and provincial support for the post-secondary sector, to ensure that all Canadians who wish to access education and training are able to do so.”

Kellar’s message for students and instructors is to pay attention to any promising trends that have developed these past couple of months. 

The fall semester will look very different from what we are used to, and many students and instructors too are anxious about what will happen in the fall. The survey we conducted showed some promising trends among students, with the vast majority of students saying they felt supported by their instructors as they moved to remote teaching in a very quick and urgent fashion, Kellar commented.


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