Declining student enrolment rates extend pressure beyond university campus

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Between offering new courses and building new campuses downtown, it seems the University of Windsor is doing all that it can to attract students, but undergraduate enrolment rates continue to decline.

An address from President Alan Wildeman revealed an undergraduate enrolment rate that is the lowest it has been in five years.

The enrolment rate, collected annually on Nov. 1, shows that the number of full-time undergraduate students has decreased by over 1,000 students in just the last two years. Full-time graduate students, however, have nearly doubled since 2011.

University administration, including assistant registrar Mark Trudell, believe that there are two important factors to consider regarding these numbers. “Across the country, we know that more and more students are choosing to take professional, graduate studies programs,” Trudell said. “As our knowledge-based economy grows, more students want masters degrees, especially international students.”

Among the 3,060 full-time graduate students recorded in the review, 1,758 of them were international students, compared to 1,302 domestic students.

UWindsor is also one of only seven schools in Ontario offering graduate studies in law, which may contribute to growing enrolment.

Graduate student Ashley Quinton is currently working towards an M.A in Communication and Social Justice and said that she picked Windsor because of her research. “It allowed me to focus on exactly what I wanted to do,” Quinton said. “I also picked Windsor because of the city- I love it. But to be honest, the school itself did not play a role other than the flexibly surrounding my research.”

Darko Milenkovic, who is also currently pursuing an M.A. in Communication and Social Justice, struggled with the decision as to whether to apply in his last year of undergrad, as he wasn’t sure the degree would help him professionally. “A lot of my peers had gone off to finish master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s, and I didn’t want to simply stop at a bachelor’s,” he said. “In short I really just wanted one to better myself, kind of a self-reflection and self-improvement type of thing.”

Although Milenkovic was unsure about entering a graduate program, he was sure about doing it at UWindsor. “I knew the faculty in the CMF [Communication, Media and Film] department really well,” he said. “ If I wasn’t going to be able to work with this faculty, I was prepared to not do an M.A. at all and just move on.”

While both Quinton and Milenkovic chose to remain in Windsor for grad school, they know there are drawbacks. “There is a bit of a stigma against doing both undergrad and grad studies at the same university,” Milenkovic admits. “This isn’t to say that the grad program at Windsor is bad, just that by limiting yourself to the same faculty you’re limiting the diversity of knowledge available to you.”

Quinton agrees, confessing she regrets not applying to other schools, and that when she applies for her Ph.D., she will be looking at several schools.

This retention paradox may be playing a role in decreasing undergraduate enrolment rates, as well as the countrywide trend of fewer students entering university immediately following high school. These students, dubbed the “101 entrants,” accounted for just 58 per cent of first-year students in 2016.

Justin Johnston, now a third-year engineering student, thinks that attending university right out of high school may contribute to academic struggles. “I wish I had taken a gap year,” he admits. “Having that year would have allowed me to figure out if university is even something I really want. It’s too hard and too expensive to not really want to do it, but everyone thinks it’s what you’re ‘supposed to do’ after high school, so I did it.”

Johnston says his grades have suffered as a result and he is not sure he wants to continue. “I’m thinking about taking time off now. Time that I didn’t take right after high school,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of friends drop out in the last two years because university just wasn’t right for them.”

Through initiatives such as the “Promise” campaign and downtown campus development, it appears the university is making an effort to resolve the issue of decreasing student retention. If declining enrolment rates do not begin to change, the city of Windsor could begin feeling the stress as well.

The education sector plays a significant role in the city’s economy, with the biggest contributors being the University of Windsor and St. Clair College. A study conducted over 2006-2007 revealed that students registered at the university that academic year spent an estimated $118 million, not including direct payments to the University for tuition, books, student fees and residence services.

During the main months of study for these students (September to April), they had an economic impact on the city of approximately $184 million.

The university is working on developing strategies to better position themselves in the competitive student-recruitment world, especially for domestic students who tend to flock to the GTA.

If these new efforts, spearheaded by the Promise campaign, are unsuccessful, it is difficult to predict a sustainable future for student enrolment and the economic clout they bring with them.

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