Andrew Drinkwater

It’s that time of year again. It’s when enrolment forecasters shift gears from “let’s figure out what the possibilities are” to “wow, the rubber is really hitting the road. We’ve got to have an enrolment plan in less than a month”.

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I remember this time well. It was among one of the most stressful parts of working in Institutional Research. It was (and remains) crucial to a university or college that we not only had a plan, but that the plan was workable, likely to be achieved, and assisted us in achieving our myriad of strategic goals. I’ll never forget wondering how it would be possible to be accurate “within $100,000” as opposed to accurate within $1 or within $1 million.

This time of the year matters for many post-secondary institutions because it is when their budget gets planned and finalized for the year ahead. Strategic enrolment planning and forecasting is a crucial component of accurate budget planning and forecasting as student tuition revenues account for a significant, but variable proportion of public university budgets: 29% in Canada [1] and 20% in the United States [2] for example. Tuition revenue supports salaries for faculty and sessional instructors, campus maintenance, student services, and so many other things that we often take for granted. Institutions that have their budget process later in the year still have their largest intake in September and the admission process kicks into high gear in the new year.

The last two years have been among the hardest for most institutional enrolment forecasters. The COVID-19 pandemic threw all the typical assumptions out the window, resulting in planners becoming extra creative and nimble in their forecasting efforts. In past years, it would be a completely rhetorical question to ask “what would happen if international student enrolment suddenly dropped by 50%?” – yet, through COVID-19, many institutions saw a noticeable drop in numbers in 2020 and into 2021. More confusing still, other institutions saw growth, against all their planning guidance.

Traditionally at most colleges and universities, the Office of Institutional Research, sometimes called Institutional Effectiveness or Institutional Analysis, is responsible for preparing the annual student enrolment forecast. There is wide variation within each institution as to who is involved in the forecasting processes: it can be a very tight-knit group or it can be much more collaborative. At one university I worked at, institutional researchers would come up with the model and the plan. It was then taken to the faculty deans who would negotiate plus or minus on the plan. I had a different experience at another university where we worked directly with deans and associate deans to help them come up with as many scenarios as they wanted to see, and then we used a form of a bubble-up approach to get the plan towards Senate, progressively narrowing the list with each iteration. I found I enjoyed the collaborative approach most, though it took some effort to keep everyone involved. The trickiest piece for both methods was often determining cross-faculty effects, such as Engineering students taking Science courses in their first year – if Engineering over-enrols, suddenly Science has a teacher shortage.

As we emerge from the pandemic, I find myself thinking of all those working so hard to ensure that the upcoming year’s forecast and plan is ready, logical, and something to not only aspire to, but to achieve. Wishing you well in the final stretch and for a well-deserved break to follow. Of course, then the process begins anew.

[1] Statistics Canada (October, 2020). Financial information of universities for the 2018/2019 school year and projected impact of COVID–19 for 2020/2021.

[2] National Center for Education Statistics. Postsecondary Institution Revenues.