On Campus

Ontario students face fierce competition for university spots

Swelling numbers of applicants and grade cut-offs add extra pressure to university-bound students

Ontario’s high school students face fierce competition from a growing pool of applicants boasting ballooning grades as they scramble to meet Wednesday’s crucial deadline for applying to the province’s universities

Last year, some 84,000 high school students applied for 64,000 spots at Ontario’s 20 universities. That was a four per cent rise in applications from 2007, and officials expect a similar increase this year.

In the guidance office at Earl Haig Secondary School, the stress is palpable.

Graduating students have been streaming in for appointments with the school’s six counsellors for weeks. Some beg for a boost to their marks. Others ask for help to retrieve the pin codes they need to apply to university online. Still others break into tears as they worry they won’t fulfil the expectations their parents have for their future.

“They’ve kind of sat on it over Christmas and now there’s this panic rush,” said Gael Robertson-Craig, who heads the department at Earl Haig, one of Toronto’s largest high schools.

“There’ll be panic where they’ll put down all (their choices), and then there’ll be this lull, and then there’ll be all this panic when marks go in.”

While the Jan. 14 deadline has always caused some to sweat, the swelling numbers of applicants and escalating grade cut-offs are adding extra pressure to today’s post-secondary hopefuls.

“If you screw up on one of these big assignments or mess up on an exam, you might have to repeat a course,” said Dylan Deska, 17, who attends Toronto’s Birchmount Park Collegiate. “I don’t know if you’d still be accepted if you get a 70.”

To hedge his bets, the aspiring chemistry major paid an extra fee to list five schools in his application – two more than the recommended three. It’s a growing trend being facilitated by the now online-based Ontario Universities’ Application Centre, the central clearing house for applications in the province.

“We’re now in a knowledge-based economy,” said George Granger, the centre’s executive director. “There’s been an expansion in the number of universities and programs, so there’s a lot to choose from.”

Six years ago, application rates in the province skyrocketed to an all-time high when the government eliminated Ontario’s fifth year of high school, reducing the term to four years and creating a double cohort applying for post-secondary education. Some 102,000 students applied to universities in 2003, up from 60,000 in 2001.

While the rate initially dropped back in line, it subsequently continued to grow. Another 94,000 students are expected to join the 360,000 people currently attending Ontario universities by 2020. Even disregarding the double cohort years, the number of applicants increased by more than 42 per cent between 2000 and 2008.

“We are creeping up steadily to what we had regarded as an extraordinary year,” said Paul Genest, president of the Council of Ontario Universities.

“That’s like adding another University of Toronto and University of Waterloo to our system, which is a heck of a lot of growth in terms of new building space and faculty hires.”

Driving the growth is the ongoing rise in immigration, increasing participation by students whose parents didn’t attend university, and applications from people who have lost jobs or are looking to upgrade their skills during the economic recession.

“It’s not happening in other provinces,” Genest said. “In the Atlantic provinces (enrolment) is falling off, and in Alberta it has been level. So Ontario is a bit of a unique situation.”

Ontario’s 24 community colleges also saw a 10 per cent increase in applications to programs that started this month, according to figures released by Colleges Ontario.

Tougher competition is also a result of grade inflation, spurred by students’ zealous drive to achieve whatever cut-off grade is listed by a university. Guidance counsellors say they are often confronted by students who plead with them to increase their average, or students who pay top dollar to small, private institutions certified by the Education Ministry just to get a better mark in a course.

“If the cut-off is 73 and students know that and work towards that … 73 becomes the new bar, and the bar goes up,” said David Huckvale, director of admissions and university placement at Country Day School, north of Richmond Hill, Ont.

“It’s what came first, the chicken or the egg? The higher average, or the students presenting higher averages?”

Grade cut-offs change every year, and vary for each program in each institution. Last year, most schools made offers to students with minimum grades averaging in the mid-70s or 80s. Several stringent programs made offers only to students whose average grade was in the low to mid-90 range. Those programs included McMaster University’s health sciences, York University’s Schulich School of Business and biotechnology at the University of Waterloo.

Huckvale, who only recently moved to the other side of admissions from his role as York University’s director of recruitment, said while he generally favours Ontario’s objective, heavily grades-weighted system, he sees value in schools that also look for well-rounded students.

“There are some students whose grades may be a little lower than another student, but have a really interesting story, and have been involved in a lot of activities and would be a really great candidate,” he said.

Extra-curricular activities may not be a strong factor in acceptance, but they play a key role in getting scholarships, he added.

Deska, an avid canoe paddlist, also believes the system should take into account more than just grades.

“It shows a lot of character, for one. Being an athlete is a transferable skill,” he said. “If you’re out there three hours every night training and getting an 80 average, in my mind that’s better than a kid getting a 90 but putting all their focus into school.”

Some universities begin making offers of admission as early as February, though students shouldn’t fret if they’re not on that list. Most institutions send out rolling offers until late May.

– The Canadian Press

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