By Lois Browne and Denys Giguère
Jose and Kathryn Vicente and their sons are living the reality of the double cohort and the turmoil in postsecondary education that many fear will engulf Ontario beginning in 2003. That’s when the last of Ontario’s Grade 13 students will graduate along with the first graduates of the new four-year program – instantly doubling to about 300,000 the number of people entering first-year college, university or the job market.
Aggravating the phenomenon is a general demographic shift upwards in the number of university-aged people wanting a postsecondary education. The double cohort is not a bulge but a plateau, according to university officials, and the numbers will not drop much in subsequent years.
The issues extend far beyond numbers, however, and the Vicentes will be dealing with many of them.
Not only do they have sons in each of the old and new programs at Holy Cross Catholic Secondary School in Kingston – Phillipe in Grade 11 and Alexandre in Grade 10 – they have another son, Daniel, in Grade 9. Kathryn Vicente thinks that he will also feel the heavy effects of the double cohort because he’ll be competing with those who didn’t get accepted the first time they applied and went back to school to improve their marks – and their chances.
"It’s going to ripple through the system until everybody who really wants to go to college or university gets in," she says.
Phillipe Vicente’s teachers have suggested that he take some OACs in Grade 12 so that he can spread out the heaviest workload as well as give himself time to raise any marks he thinks might be too low.
The main advice that Alexandre Vicente has received from his teachers echoes what other teachers, principals and university officials have said: the best approach is to work hard and get good marks. The sub-text is clear – high marks are going to play a big part in life after high school.
The Vicente boys also represent the group that many think will have the greatest difficulty – students who want to get into specialized programs like computer science and engineering. Arts and humanities programs are expected to be more able to stretch facilities to accommodate a surge of students than smaller, more specialized programs.
Another Vicente son is already in engineering at the University of Western Ontario, a bonus for the younger boys who will have his experience to draw on as they try to satisfy entrance requirements. Alexandre is also hoping to take engineering at Western Ontario; Phillipe will try for the same program at Queen’s University.
The universities declare themselves committed to providing access to postsecondary education for "every qualified and motivated student," according to the Council of Ontario Universities’ report Access to Excellence. The provincial government has made a similar commitment.
But there is a fear that the universities may not be able to expand their facilities sufficiently in time for 2003 and will have no choice but to raise entrance standards. So although the Vicente boys maintain a steady B+ or better academic standing, Kathryn isn’t sure that’s going to be good enough in 2003.
"The universities are going to start with the top marks, and work down," she says.
The Vicentes and their sons have started to look at some options, such as the combined college and university program that requires three years of study as an electrical technologist and then adds on a two-year university program.
"You end up with your engineering degree and you’ve got both of what industry wants – the practical and the theoretical," says Kathryn.
What parents and teachers fear is that as demand for a place in a postsecondary institution increases, the qualifications – whether financial or academic – are going to have to change.
George Granger, registrar of McMaster University, has suggested that raising admission standards might be one way for universities to handle an increase in applications. And competition is undoubtedly getting tougher. Maclean’s reported, in its 2000 annual ranking of Canadian universities, that the proportion of students entering university with grade averages of 75 per cent or higher has been steadily rising since 1995.
Ministry of Education spokesperson Linda Nicolson says that the situation has not really changed from what it always has been. "When students are looking at the program they want to get into, they make some tough choices along the way and then have to work flat out to get good marks and get into the program."
The government has made a commitment to provide enough spaces and sufficient financial assistance to help all the students who want to take postsecondary studies, says Nicolson. "The double cohort is something we’ve been aware of and planning for a while and it’s not something that students and parents should be overly concerned about," says Nicolson..
Looking for Answers
However, the concern among parents has grown steadily over the past few years as talk about the double cohort raised a host of questions but supplied few answers. Last year, the Holy Cross school council tried to get answers from both the education and colleges and universities ministries. When they failed, the school council hosted a public meeting on the issue.
Frank Reinholz, chair of the school council and himself a father of three boys in high school, didn’t know how many people to expect. Organizers were floored when 350 parents showed up, an impressive number considering there were about 500 students in Holy Cross who would be part of the double cohort.
The council’s own research had produced a long list of alarming facts about Ontario universities. Even without the demand that the double cohort will put on the system, universities are already at or near the bottom in comparison with every other Canadian jurisdiction in terms of funding, student/faculty ratio and tuition fees. The double cohort will further aggravate the problem.
Since the Holy Cross meeting, the provincial government has allocated $891 million from the SuperBuild Growth Fund to support expansion of university facilities. Community colleges have also received financing from the fund to help cope with an estimated 20 per cent increase in their applications over the next few years.
The Ministry of Education launched a five-year double cohort study last October to track Grade 9 and 10 students to one year after they leave high school. Ministry officials say that this will give them some information about student intentions by October. The data will be used to help determine the size of the double cohort and to compare student intentions with what they actually do once they graduate.
The ministry has also enlisted academics Alan King of Queen’s University and Jean Claude Boyer of the University of Ottawa to conduct a long-term study of the effects of the double cohort on university enrolment. They will analyze data on past applications to postsecondary institutions and other relevant factors and survey about 80,000 students on their intentions after graduation. They will also look at how well current high school students are coping with the restructuring that has been undertaken during recent years.
The first of their reports is scheduled to be completed by the end of March 2001, says King. "It should add quite a bit more information on the subject."
Two main issues that colleges and universities are still not confident will be resolved is the question of operational funding and hiring of faculty. Both sectors are keeping their fingers crossed that the government will announce increased operational funding in the spring budget.
Howard Rundle, president of Fanshawe College in London and chair of the presidents’ committee of the Association of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology of Ontario is convinced that the financial support will come. "I can’t imagine it won’t. You don’t invest a billion dollars in buildings and then not provide any funding for staff."
How Many Students?
Frank Reinholz says he feels these plans are too little, too late. He says the SuperBuild finances may solve the problem of space but the government doesn’t really know how many students will be applying to Ontario universities and colleges. "They still don’t have an accurate number on the double cohort. They’re still trying to come to grips with it. So that says to a lot of people, ‘Why did you eliminate Grade 13 until you had a handle on that?’"
And expanding physical facilities doesn’t address the many other issues that rapid changes to the school system have created for high school students – a new curriculum and system of assessment, a demoralized teaching profession, schools with inadequate resources, increasing tuition costs, reduced financial assistance.
Reinholz’s son currently in Grade 11 has already been affected by the elimination of Grade 13. Last year, he had to use two math books to make one complete book because the used texts all had pages missing. The school board had decided it wouldn’t spend money to buy new books for just one year.
"So as he goes through high school, his experience is with equipment and books that are at the end of their life," says Reinholz, who believes that a lack of planning by the province means his children are getting a substandard education.
To try to redress some of these disadvantages, Reinholz’ son now has a tutor from Queen’s University and there’s been talk of summer school.
SCHOOL WORK DEMANDS
"A lot of parents today are spending much more time with their kids trying to help them cope with the curriculum. This is a regular thing for my wife and me," says Reinholz.
"The amount they have to learn in such a short period of time is staggering. Their marks and their self-confidence suffer," says Timmins chiropractor Gilles Lamarche, the father of three high school students. "The problem is they should have started to accelerate the program in Grade 6 to allow kids time to adjust at a more reasonable pace."
"Doing away with Grade 13 makes sense and it is done in a number of other jurisdictions but there is definitely a lack of planning. Grade 10 students are now learning things that were taught in Grade 12 previously. I don’t think they were adequately prepared for that and they are overwhelmed right now."
SETTING MINDS AT EASE
Not everyone is anxious. Greg Reid, chair of the Ontario Parent Council and father of a Grade 10 student, heads one of the few groups that has been able to get information from the government and he says that it has alleviated many of his concerns.
"We met with the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and it set our minds at ease," says Reid. "The ministry says it anticipated this boom in the postsecondary population and it has been involved in long-term planning to deal with it."
Reid believes that the SuperBuild fund has addressed the need for additional physical facilities, and financial help will continue to be available to the same degree as in the past. As for other issues, Reid points out that Ontario, in eliminating Grade 13, is not doing anything that other provinces are not.
The one issue that still seems unaddressed, says Reid, is the need to provide more teaching staff in colleges and universities.
"We’re monitoring the situation and have asked for more information."
Grade 10 Students Vulnerable
Many think that Grade 10 students are facing the biggest challenge.
They’ll be competing with students who are a year older and have an extra year of high school studies behind them. Grade 10s have also been dealing with a brand new curriculum and all its attendant problems for two years in a row.
"Everything’s new," says Grant Yeo, director of education for the Durham District School Board, "new books, new course profiles, new training for teachers, new assessments, new report cards."
Students and parents have talked to guidance counsellors, teachers and school administrators about their individual issues, but most say they get very little practical information or help.
Schools Don’t Have Answers
Rick Victor, president of the Ontario Principals’ Council (OPC) says his organization has met with the provincial government to ask for realistic information that would help schools advise students and parents on their options and alleviate fears that the system will be able to cope. "We need an honest assessment of the realities," says Victor, but he notes the OPC is still waiting.
"We’re not telling students too much because we don’t have many answers," says Phil Hedges, president of the Ontario School Counsellors’ Association and principal of Delhi District Secondary School in southern Ontario. His school has heard from students and parents wanting advice on whether or not Grade 11 students should accelerate their program to graduate a year ahead of the double cohort. Under such a plan, students would drop most optional work to concentrate on getting their OACs and other prerequisites for the program they hope to get into.
Hedges warns, however, that students who fast-track have to be pretty focused and sure of what they want to do when they graduate. Another drawback is that students don’t have as rich a program when they focus their energies on required academics to the exclusion of any sports, music and other interests.
Another possibility that school boards acknowledge but don’t advertise is that students can also decelerate their program. The problem with that plan, says Hedges, is that students of the old program will end up having to take courses in the new curriculum for which they are even less prepared than those in the four-year program.
Programs requiring maths and science are a concern, says Hedges. Generally students taking these subjects are going into fields such as engineering. The risk is that accelerated course work may produce lower marks, and that has implications for scholarships and other forms of financial assistance. And there’s the question of maturity – developmentally, some students may not be emotionally or psychologically prepared for the greater independence and responsibility of university.
Max Reed, a 17-year-old Grade 11 student at North Toronto Collegiate, is probably going to opt for an accelerated program, but discussions with other students makes him think not many others plan to follow the same course. "Most are thinking that they’re better off looking at the five-year program and making sure their marks are really, really good. And they also think that fast-tracking is going to be too much work."
Reed also says that students a year behind him feel they are disadvantaged in two ways.
"They think the universities will pick people who have five years of high school education as opposed to four, and since the Grade 10 curriculum is untested, they’re not sure how they are going to be evaluated.
"For us, we know that it’s going to be our six OAC marks and not much else. But the Grade 10s right now have no idea how they’re going to be evaluated," says Reed.
French-language students and their parents express all the same concerns that English-language students do, but they must also deal with the fact there are a limited number of institutions where they can study in French. That may force many of them to give up studying in French in order to assure themselves a university education.