TORONTO - Ontario's graduating high school students are facing stiffer competition for high-demand, high-employment college and university programs as workers who lost their jobs in the recession head back to school and claim the country's coveted post-secondary education spots.
Colleges and universities will not give special priority to the Grade 12 candidates, administrators say, despite the fact they could be thrown out into a tough, recessionary job market with little or no work experience and only a high school education if they're not accepted.
The deadline for Grade 12 students to apply to Ontario's universities for next September is Wednesday; for colleges it is Feb. 1.
College applications overall were up by 10 per cent over the last several years, with those in areas with a high jobless rate experiencing increases of up to 50 per cent.
The recession's ravaging of the job market is pushing laid-off workers back to school and a wildly popular Ontario government program has provided many unemployed mature students with the financial means to do so.
In northern Ontario, for example, where the forestry industry's collapse was followed by one in mining, Northern College saw applications for its four campuses jump 47% last year. And that's even before Extrada's planned layoff of 700 people this May.
In Windsor, where auto sector layoffs have battered the city, applications to St. Clair College were up by 20 per cent in 2009.
"When the economy is strong, students tend to put off going to school, going to college particularly, in favour of entering the workforce and earning some money," said Northern College president Fred Gibbons.
"When the economy turns soft as it has in 2009, students will then return to school or elect to leave high school and enter college...College enrolment tends to vary inversely with jobs in the economy."
The Ontario government's Second Career program, which provides laid off workers with up to $28,000 a year to go back to school to train for high-demand jobs, has been a huge incentive for mature students.
Second Career was announced in 2008 as a $355-million, three-year program. However, it was so popular that the money was scooped up in 18 months as laid off workers headed back to school and the province pumped another $78 million into the program last October.
Second Career has been a boon for St. Clair College, which had already been working for several years to build more capacity and is now in a position to take an additional 1,500 students next fall.
But at some post-secondary institutions, competition for programs that are seen as the job-providers of the future has become so fierce that perfectly qualified students are being turned away.
That is particularly true in areas such as health care, biotechnology, social work, personal support, veterinary science and engineering.
Laid off workers are applying in large numbers to colleges, but there is also an increase at the province's universities in the number of people applying to professional programs that can be entered in first year.
"Some of the programs we simply cannot take any more because we don't have the money to expand the program," said University of Windsor president Alan Wildeman. "This is a challenge that's facing many programs across the country."
The same situation exists in the nursing program at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, where applications for nursing shot up by almost one third over two years.
At the University of Toronto, arts and sciences registrar Glenn Loney says there has been an unexpected increase in applicants accepting offers to study there, which he believes is likely related to the poor economic situation.
Linda Franklin, president of the provincial colleges association College Ontario, says there's been a rapid increase in the number of college student applications all across the province from southwestern Ontario through Toronto and up into the north.
"There's a huge influx of people into the college system," Franklin says.
"In some programs, paramedics for example...fire fighting, police foundations, there are far more people interested in those jobs, in those courses, than available spaces."
She notes that mature students have received particular attention, both from colleges and the Ontario government.
"There's been a lot of work at the colleges over the last couple of years to figure out how you would accommodate this growing demand by mature students," Franklin says.
Mature students apply at various times of the year because they cannot predict when they will get laid off, she said, which can mean missing the cutoff date for applications.
In Windsor, the institution opened an additional number of paramedic courses for retraining adults because there wasn't a way to accommodate this segment in the regular cycle, Franklin said.
"A lot of work has been done there to figure out how we can pre-orient the way we're delivering education to meet quite different needs of the adult learners."
But Grade 12 graduates won't be getting the same kind of attention from the Ontario government.
Like mature students, Grade 12s are eligible to apply for financial help through the Ontario Student Assistance Program. But only unemployed workers can apply for support through Second Career.
Nor will they be given priority for scarce spaces in either colleges or universities despite being up against an influx of mature students.
That's got some Grade 12 students and their parents worried.
Laura Schoof, 17, will be graduating from Vincent Massey Secondary School in Windsor this spring and has applied to three Ontario colleges' medical radiation programs.
"There are more people in their late 40s going in, that's more people applying," said Schoof. "I've been really stressing about getting my grades up and pretty much worrying about getting in."
She believes Grade 12 students should be given priority over mature students because laid off workers could more easily find a job if they were turned away from college.
That doesn't appear to be in the pipeline, however, at either the college or university level.
"No, not right now," said University of Windsor's Wildeman. "We want to be as accessible as we can to as many people as possible who want to get a university education. It's not a question of choosing between the two."
It's the same story at the University of Toronto, where Loney says there will be no special consideration given to high school students.
"You'd have to think through whether someone who is 18 and coming out of high school has a greater claim on the space than somebody who's older and has done some things already," Loney said.
"It's not obvious that one has a greater claim on a space than someone else."
The ultimate answer, say the administrators, is for the Ontario government to fund more spaces, then there would be no need to pick and choose between high school graduates and mature students.
John Milloy, the minister of training, colleges and universities, could not be reached for comment.