Friday, March 30, 2007

University Classes Doubled in Size when Grade 13 Was Abolished in Ontario

Friday's Urban Legend: FALSE

Back in the 20th century Ontario had a unique education system where students spent an extra year in high school. They didn't graduate until they had completed Grade 13.

This system was abolished in order to bring Ontario into line with the rest of the civilized world. There didn't seem to be any logical reason to force Ontario students to stay in high school for an extra year. When they entered university they ended up being a year older than students from every other country and every other province in Canada.

The new system began with an overhaul of the high school curriculum so that five years worth of material could be taught into four years. Some voluntary breadth courses were abandoned. On implementation day all students entering grade nine were going to graduate at the end of grade 12.

This created a double cohort of graduating students since those completing the new four year program were graduating at the same time as the class ahead of them who were the last to finish grade 13. Naturally, the universities in Ontario were expected to accommodate the double cohort so that students in the first year of the new system would not be penalized. It was widely believed that the "double cohort" really meant there would be twice as many students entering university at some point.

Newspapers published articles about the double cohort as though the class sizes would double. Parents believed that classes would double in size and so did students. Even today, after we have seen the result, it is still widely believed that there were twice as many students in the double cohort year.

It never happened. The universities knew that their enrolment would not double and they published lots of data to explain why. As it turned out they were right and they publicized that too. Still the myth persists. An article in this week's Toronto Star show how little we've learned (see below the fold).

Let's start with a little quiz. Here's some data on the size of first year science classes at the University of Toronto. The red bars represent students enrolled in our first year biology class. Green is for chemistry, blue is calculus, and yellow is physics. I haven't told you when the so-called "double" cohort entered university. See if you can guess by looking at the data.


The double cohort class entered university in the Fall of 2003. The universities predicted that class sizes in that year would increase by about 20-25% over those of the previous years. They also predicted that class sizes would remain at that level for several years. The double cohort hit universities at the same time that applications were expanding because of the echo boom and because of increases in participation rates. The chart below shows the increase in university students throughout Canada over the past decade. You can see that the numbers grew from 2000 to 2005 and this has nothing to do with the double cohort in Ontario. Even without a double cohort there was a predicted increase in enrolment during this time frame.

Why was the "double cohort" increase only 25% and not 100%? There are many reasons but the most obvious one is that universities attract students from all over Canada and from many foreign countries as well. The double cohort only affected graduates from Ontario high schools. If only half the students at the University of Toronto are from Ontario, for example, then the expected increase would only be 50% assuming that the double cohort really was twice the size and assuming that all qualified applicants were accepted.

The reason it was less than that had to do with other, predicted, events. First, a significant number of students in the last year of the five year program were allowed to "fast-track" in order to finish in four years and get ahead of the double cohort. A significant number of students in the first year of the new four year program took an extra year in order to fall behind the double cohort. Many more students than normal in the double cohort went to universities in other provinces.

Let's look closely at the actual numbers by normalizing the class size to that of 1997-98.


Now we see that the largest increase was in 2002-03, the year before the double cohort entered university. This increase is entirely due to expanded enrolment in anticipation of further increases that are due to increased participation. It had the added benefit of accommodating the fast-trackers. The actual enrolment increase in the double cohort year was only 10-15% higher than that in the previous year and it was less than the numbers in the following year. This is an important point. The real increase in that particular year (2003-04) was no more than 20% and in most cases was considerably less. Part of the increase (about 20%) in this period was due to demographic factors unrelated to the double cohort as demonstrated in the chart for Canada as a whole.

This brings me to the Toronto Star article [Double cohort graduating again].
There was much concern when the last Grade 13s and the first graduating-year Grade 12s combined to create the largest group to finish high school en masse in the province's history.

The decision was designed to cut public education costs and bring Ontario in line with the rest of the continent, where 12 grades were already the norm, but it left educators facing serious challenges.

Would universities and colleges have enough staff and classroom space? What about residences? Would crowded schools affect the quality of education? Would thousands of students fall through the cracks just because they happened to be born in the wrong year?

Four years later, the Ontario government is again straining to accommodate the double cohort. Apart from concern about a flood of entries to the labour force, the province has to provide an extra $240 million a year to create 14,000 graduate school spaces by 2009.
The Star interviewed three students. I'd like to quote the remarks on one of them in order to illustrate the double cohort mythology.
As part of the double cohort's older half, Allard regrets not having fast-tracked her way through high school.

"In high school, I thought it was no big deal. Now I've come to realize that for the rest of my life, this group is going to follow me wherever I go. Whether it's grad school, medical school or work, there will be twice as many people trying to do everything I'm trying to do. If I'd fast-tracked, I could have gone to university a year earlier."
As a double cohort student, I presume Allard was interested in the numbers. She probably read the predictions and she probably read about the actual increase in class size. I can't imagine that she didn't. At some point she must have been exposed to the fact that her class was less than 20% larger than the one ahead of her and smaller than the one behind her.

She has just spent four years in university were one hopes she learned how to think critically. She must have noticed that her classes weren't twice as large as other classes. So why does she say that she will always be competing with twice as many people? I can't help but feel that we've failed to do a good job of educating if there are so many out there who believe in things that are easily refuted by facts and observations.
Young will graduate with a degree in political science from the University of Western Ontario next month. A good student in high school, he had no trouble getting into his university of choice. In fact, he liked being in the double cohort.

"It was fun," he says. "I was in the younger year of the cohort, so I got to spend my year with twice as many students, and half of them were older than me."
Hmmm ... one wonders just how much attention he was paying in class. A good many of his classmates were not from Ontario so they were the same age. The class was only 20% bigger than the previous class so where did he get the idea that there were twice as many students?
Young's plans were also affected by the double cohort. Had it not been for the increased competition for graduate school positions, he says he likely would have continued his education.

"In a different year, I probably would have worked a bit, then considered getting my master's, which would have helped me land the kind of job I want."
The data is clear. His "competition" is no greater than most other years. This is because the actual increase in the graduating class this year will be less than 20% and the number of graduate positions has increased significantly. We must not have done a good job of teaching critical thinking in this case either. Maybe it's not a requirement in political science?

Thanks to Brenda Bradshaw in our office for gettng some of the data on very short notice.

5 comments :

  1. the province has to provide an extra $240 million a year to create 14,000 graduate school spaces by 2009.

    Mischaracterizations like this have already annoyed me. The province wasn't forced into putting an extra $240 million into graduate schools, the province did that of its own volition (I'm sure you can think of your own reasons, cynical or otherwise, why an elected government might do such a thing). The most annoying part about that boost is how dilute it will be - my calculations put it at about $5700 per NEW student per year for three years (the period over which this money will be spread). If we assume the money is being spread across all student positions, new and old, it comes to $2051 per year per student. That would be nice, but is less than half of annual tuition. This will expand graduate schools how, exactly?

    My rudely-worded examination of this specific aspect at:
    http://brummellblog.blogspot.com/2006/09/ontario-to-expand-graduate-schools.html

    Also, nice explanation of the double-cohort. Media explorations of the phenomenon always leave me feeling mildly angry, because their arguments are so simplistic. Nobody's even mentioned any potential role of students taking a 'gap year' between high school and university.

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  2. There are lots of misconceptions about graduate school funding as well. Unfortunately, you seem to have fallen for some of them.

    The requested increase in the number of graduate students has little to do with the double cohort. All universities in Canada are facing increases in enrolment due to increased participation rates and the echo boom. They've done their calculations and they know that undergraduate enrolment will go up by 25-30% in spite of the double cohort. This is as true for McGill and UBS as it is for Toronto and McMaster.

    Furthermore, the participation rate for graduate school was expected to increase more than the rate for undergraduates. In other words, the increased demand for graduate school was expected to be closer to 33% than to 25% because a higher percentage of students see the need for an advanced degree.

    Money is the limiting factor when it comes to graduate students. At the University of Toronto we are committed to giving at least $15,000 to every graduate student. This covers the costs of tuition and some living expenses.

    In non-science departments, this money has to come from the university. (In science departments a lot of it comes from grants.)

    The universities lobbied hard for extra money in order to expand the number of graduate students. Part of the argument was that the proportion of graduate students to undergraduates in Canadian schools is a lot less than in American schools.

    Most provinces have agreed to provide extra funding for graduate students. In Ontario the committment is for an additioonal $240 million per year. This will pay for an extra 14,000 students at $17,000 per student per year.

    The province will only give over the money if graduate student enrolment increases. They don't just hand the money to the univerisities, it's tied to the number of graduate students.

    The problem is that we are now into the second years of increases in the number of university graduates but there's been no increase in the number of graduate students. There are several good reasons for this and some of us warned about being overly optimistic. Here's my take on the projections.

    The increase in participation rate at the undergraduate level does not mean that we're getting more excellent students. Quite the contrary. For the most part it means that instead of gettng the top 25% of high school graduate we are now taking in the top 30% of high school graduates. Students who were in the 25-30% group in high school are going to be less likely to go to graduate scool, in my opinion. I'm not saying that high school grades are a perfect predictor of university success but they do correlate to some degree.

    The graduate schools are not lowering their standards so a lot of people who are applying to graduate school aren't qualifying. They aren't going to graduate school even though the money is there.

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  3. Students who were in the 25-30% group in high school are going to be less likely to go to graduate scool, in my opinion

    This is confusing to me; how is it that the top performing portion is less likely to go to graduate school?

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  4. Thanks for the clarifications and new information, Larry. Very interesting.

    Money is the limiting factor when it comes to graduate students.

    This is certainly true from both sides of the equation - when the choice is go to graduate school and live below the poverty line for 2 or more years, vs. take a B.A. or B.Sc. and get a job (that may pay something upwards of $30000 per year to start*), the money available per student is a strong factor. I likely would complain, loudly, about my pay as a graduate student, but I know the issue is rather more complicated than "gimme more money!". I have not yet formed a firm opinion on what a better (but realistic) situation would look like.

    In Ontario the committment is for an additioonal $240 million per year. This will pay for an extra 14,000 students at $17,000 per student per year.

    See, this sounds really good. The Globe and Mail article I read about this back in the fall clearly described the money as $240 million in total, spread across three years. So what you're saying is triple the funding I thought. That makes a big difference!

    The province will only give over the money if graduate student enrolment increases. They don't just hand the money to the univerisities, it's tied to the number of graduate students.

    In other words, none of this additional funding will be available to current graduate students - is that right?

    The graduate schools are not lowering their standards so a lot of people who are applying to graduate school aren't qualifying. They aren't going to graduate school even though the money is there.

    This may contribute a partial explanation for my impression, developed over the last 8 months or so, that there are more PhD positions available than people able to fill them.

    Dunbar said: This is confusing to me; how is it that the top performing portion is less likely to go to graduate school?

    It's not the top 30%, it's the 5% of students between 25% and 30%. In other words, these are the students who scored higher than 70% of their classmates in high school, but lower than the top 25%. My guess about Larry's opinion that these students are unlikely to go to graduate school is based on the correlation between academic success at various levels - the correlation is far from perfect, but it's generally true** that successful graduate students did well in high school.

    * I had such a job - for approximately a year after I graduated from UVic with my B.Sc. I worked full-time for a small biotech company on Vancouver Island and was paid approximately $32000 for the year.

    ** since I've never seen relevant data, a correlation analysis or any more sophisticated statistical analyses, this unreferenced opinion should be considered mere conjecture.

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