Demographics Shaping Post-Secondary Enrollment Numbers


On average, Canadian university participation rates have been increasing, reflecting broader awareness of the importance of post-secondary education and that universities and colleges have reached out to groups that have not typically had high participation rates in the past, including Aboriginal groups and new immigrant arrivals. Yet, total post-secondary enrollment is expected to decline over the coming years.

Why?  In Canada, shifting youth demographics is shaping application and enrollment statistics at Canadian universities and colleges. Why? Quite simply, it’s a demographic issue, with large shifts in the relative size of the age cohorts that attend college and university. More specifically, the echo of the baby boom generation is working its way through post-secondary education, with 2011 representing the year when the numbers of 18-21 year olds peaked, after which declining cohort size will result in a smaller pool from which universities and colleges typically draw their students. It won’t be until the early to mid-2020s that the cohort of 18-21 year olds will increase again, as the grandchildren of boomers start to enter college and university.

The province of Ontario in Canada is an example of these changing demographics. Statistics from the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC), which acts as a centralized application system for Ontario institutions, the change in the number of applications is quickly quantified, with the number of applicants (on average) declining over the past few years. Fewer applications mean fewer students.

The demographic impact will be uneven across the province. Institutions in Northern Ontario will be especially hard hit given the small market area, and with most students in Ontario attending post-secondary institutions relatively close to their home. For these institutions, enrollment numbers are expected to decline sharply and are not expected to recover. On the other hand, institutions in southern Ontario, and particularly the Toronto area, along with those that offer professional programs, are less disadvantaged. While they will likely see a small dip in enrollment numbers before the numbers recover, their enrollment will be sustained by a large immigrant population and in increase in international students.

Further Reading:

Statistics Canada. 2007. Study: Postsecondary enrolment trends to 2031. Available at:

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (2011). Trends in Higher Education. Available at:

Photo credit: McMaster University


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