Postsecondary Enrolment Trends to 2031: Three Scenarios

Warning View the most recent version.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please "contact us" to request a format other than those available.

By Darcy Hango and Patrice de Broucker

Content note: At this moment, full content is available in PDF only.

To access the PDF publication, please use the "Full content in PDF" link on the sidebar (on the left-hand side of this page).

Executive summary

This report applies various assumptions regarding future participation rates in postsecondary education to projected demographic trends to create three scenarios that estimate the potential future population of students in postsecondary institutions in Canada and the provinces.

Projections are provided separately for enrolments at the college and the university levels for three age cohorts: 17 to 19 year-olds, 20 to 24 year-olds and 25 to 29 year-olds. Demographic trends and participation rates in college and in university both vary widely across provinces. To reflect these differences, the analysis is presented at both a national level and for each of the ten provinces. At the national level, the sample size is large enough to allow analysis of trends in both full- and part-time enrolment; at the provincial level, the analysis is restricted to full-time enrolment only.

Demographic projections show that over the coming decades, large shifts will occur in the size of age cohorts that have historically constituted the majority of students in Canadian colleges and universities.

Given those demographic trends, the report creates three scenarios for projecting enrolment levels in universities and colleges to 2031 under certain conditions. 

The first scenario, "Maintaining the status quo," is based on the assumption that future participation rates would match those observed in the recent three-year period between 2003/2004 and 2005/2006.

Under this scenario, total full-time postsecondary enrolment is projected to grow steadily until 2012/2013 to nearly 1.3 million students, about 50,000 more than between 2003/2004 and 2005/2006. After 2012/2013, a major decline in the size of the youth cohorts would begin to affect enrolments. Full-time postsecondary enrolment would reach a trough in 2025/2026, with a student population 9% below the previous peak 13 years earlier.

The national pattern would mask considerable differences in the magnitude and timing of enrolment peaks and troughs across the provinces under this scenario. For example, in the Atlantic provinces and Saskatchewan, projected enrolments start to drop early in the projection period. In Quebec, the number of new entrants into the postsecondary system would increase significantly early in the period, with total enrolments peaking in 2009/2010.

The second scenario, "Growth in line with historical trends," is based on trends in participation rates observed over a much longer time period. It assumes that rates would continue to grow until 2016/2017 on the basis of historical trends in the period between 1990/1991 and 2005/2006, then remain at the 2016/2017 levels up to 2030/2031.

Under this scenario, postsecondary enrolment for the age group 17 to 29 would first rise, in part due to increases in the size of this population early in the projection period and in part due to the assumed increases in participation rates. Rising participation rates would then compensate for declines in the size of the age cohort to 2016/2017. However, by 2030/2031, enrolment levels would plunge by more than 90,000, reflecting the decline in the population aged 17 to 29 over the latter part of the projection period.

The third scenario, "Closing the gender gap," assumes that participation rates for male students would rise to match rates for women that existed between 2003/2004 and 2005/2006. (Participation rates are consistently higher at the university level for women, especially those aged 17 to 24.)

Under this scenario, male university enrolment would increase dramatically to 2030/2031. In other words, raising the university participation rates of men could offset some of the potential enrolment deficits that would result from a decline in the size of the university-age cohort after 2012/2013.

You need to use the free Adobe Reader to view PDF documents. To view (open) these files, simply click on the link. To download (save) them, right-click on the link. Note that if you are using Internet Explorer or AOL, PDF documents sometimes do not open properly. See Troubleshooting PDFs. PDF documents may not be accessible by some devices. For more information, visit the Adobe website or contact us for assistance.