Faced with enrolment crunch, English CEGEPs are pushing aside thriving high school students

In some programs, applications at Vanier and Dawson College are skyrocketing, and the schools have less wiggle room to bring in new students. As a result, high schoolers with grades in the upper 80s and lower 90s are being told they haven't made the cut.

'I just feel very lost with everything,' says 17-year-old student

Calypso Saint-Cyr has an 88 grade average, but she was turned down when she applied at Vanier College. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC)

Vanier and Dawson College are juggling a surge in applications and having a smaller number of available spots, and as a result, high school students who would normally be shoo-ins are having to wait longer before knowing if they've been accepted.

Some are even being told they didn't make the cut.

Thorin Malaka, a 17-year-old in his final year at Laurier Macdonald High School in Montreal's Saint-Leonard neighbourhood, was put on a waiting list for Dawson's health science program. He has a 92 average.

"I don't know what to do, that's how I feel. I just feel very lost with everything," Malaka said. "Like, [I have] a 92 average. Not everyone has a 92 average and somehow that's still not enough to get into just a basic college program here in Quebec."

Malaka said the school's response indicated that more room could open up in the program later in the application process, and he should keep checking online to see if he's been accepted. He also applied to Vanier's health science program.

He got in, but Dawson is his first choice.

"It's not where I want to be, it's not what I want to do," he said, when talking about being accepted at Vanier. "My application at Vanier is expiring and I still haven't heard back from Dawson... So I'm kind of like in a limbo [in terms] of what I should be doing."

Thorin Malaka is in his final year at Laurier Macdonald high school. He has a 92 average but was not able to get into his preferred program at Dawson College. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

Many other students have taken to social media to share similar stories, and express their frustration with what appears to be a much more stringent application process.

Applications at Vanier are up seven per cent compared to last year. The increase in candidates for the school's science programs is an eye-popping 36 per cent. At Dawson, overall applications are up 16 per cent, and the number of people vying for a spot in the school's science program is up 27 per cent.

"We cannot explain the cause of this increase," Dawson College spokesperson Megan Ainscow wrote in an email to CBC.

Making things even more difficult for prospective students, both schools have between 200 and 250 fewer available spots for the 2021-2022 school year.

Ainscow says the pandemic is to blame, as many students are taking longer to finish their studies and schools are not expelling those who failed to meet academic standards.

"In general, we know that many students applied to more than one college," Ainscow said. "This, coupled with fewer spots available at Dawson and Vanier due to COVID-19 has created added pressure."

The number of new students who enrolled across the province for the current school year increased by three per cent, according to the province's federation of CEGEPs.

'They don't really know where to go from here'

Sporting an 88 average, Calypso Saint-Cyr applied to Vanier, Dawson and Marianopolis College in liberal arts, expecting to get accepted by all three schools.

It turns out Marianopolis said yes, Dawson said maybe.

"And for Vanier, I was rejected, flat-out," said the student from Westmount High School. "I thought I was going to kind of get into everything because of my average that I worked hard for."

Dawson College has received 16 per cent more applications compared to last year. Applications for the science program are up 27 per cent. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Rachelle Doucet, a guidance counsellor at Pierrefonds Community High School, says she's had to try to cheer up a lot of disappointed and angry students who don't understand why the application process is so difficult.

"Students are coming into my office feeling frustrated, and just kind of dejected," Doucet said. "They don't really know where to go from here. So it's my job to instill that hope of being able to find another route to where they want to go."

The English CEGEPs will compare admissions to see who was accepted to more than one school. They'll contact students, asking them to be clear about where they intend to go, which should free up some space.

That likely won't reassure students who have a pretty good idea of where they want to go. They were also convinced they had the necessary grades to get in.

"I don't have a backup plan," Saint-Cyr said. "I didn't think I would need one."

With files from Matt D'Amours, CBC Montreal's Let's Go and Louis Pavlakos