Universities are recruiting new students and trying to convince others to stay enrolled for the fall even as it’s still not clear whether in-person classes will be offered because of the impact of COVID-19.

The situation has many administrators and students waiting anxiously as they assess messages from public health officials about when gatherings, including lectures, will be permitted.

Although schools seem to have been able to finish the 2020 winter term with a rapid transition to online learning, it’s not clear whether students would be willing to pay for a primarily online offering in the fall.

Investors services firm Moody’s says it expects universities, including those in Canada, to take a financial hit, warning they’re likely to enrol fewer students than planned.

Some schools say despite the challenge posed by the pandemic, they expect to welcome an incoming class similar in size to previous years.

They argue that the primary alternatives for young people considering a gap year will likely be more difficult to pursue, since the pandemic is expected to restrict travel and send unemployment soaring.

The University of Toronto has already distributed roughly half of its offers of admission for the fall of 2020. So far there’s no sign of any worrying trend, said Richard Levin, university registrar and director of enrolment services.

“We’re not seeing anything in the acceptance rate of offers,” Mr. Levin said.

He added this year is so far out of the ordinary it’s difficult to predict what will happen.

“There’s been so much speculation that it will be a difficult year for universities that we’d love to prove everybody wrong,” Mr. Levin said. “We do think we’re going to have a strong, diverse class in the fall.”

Many institutions are asking difficult questions about enrolment for the start of the next academic year. Will families be in such difficult financial straits that prospective students hold off investing in education? Will they be willing to pay thousands for a primarily online education?

“If you can’t work and you can’t travel, taking courses, even if fall is not a normal term, actually looks like a pretty good alternative,” Mr. Levin said.

Jake Bennett, a 19-year-old marketing student at Guelph University, said he would be unlikely to return to university in the fall if classes are offered exclusively online, particularly if tuition fees remain unchanged. He said he has found the experience a poor substitute for in-person classes.

“Unless they figure out something different for next semester, it’s not worth it. I’d rather take the year off,” Mr. Bennett said. “I couldn’t imagine taking core classes online for a whole year. As far as learning, I don’t think they’re really comparable.”

Admitting new students is also complicated by the disruption to the normal high-school calendar, as a result of which many students won’t have the normal grades and exam results on which to be evaluated. But universities say they are trying to be flexible and are relying on Grade 11 marks if necessary to make selection decisions.

Mr. Levin said universities will consider offering further academic supports for the fall as new students may not be arriving with the same level of preparation as in previous years.

Leo Groarke, president of Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., said domestic student enrolment looks to be down slightly at Trent for next September, but it’s hard to gauge as this is not a normal admissions cycle.

“There are just so many things we don’t know,” Mr. Groarke said.

He said he hopes to have a normal term starting in September. But he’s also considering other possibilities, such as starting the semester in October. Or, if the situation remains difficult, January could be the time to return to normal, while the fall could mean a combination of small, adequately distanced in-person classes with larger lectures held only online.

“In some ways we need to know when the peak of the crisis is, and until we know that it’s very difficult,” Mr. Groarke said.

At the University of Victoria, there has been an increase in enrolment in some areas for the summer term, such as business, social sciences and engineering.

“Whether enrolment will grow or decline is difficult to predict, given the unknown behaviour of the virus, the challenges students face and socio-economic changes,” said Susan Lewis, UVic’s associate vice-president of academic planning. “People see education as a sound investment, and that’s especially so in these uncertain times.”

The Globe and Mail, April 14, 2020