Defer University?

With the pandemic situation and the move to online classes by many universities, there is discussion about whether to defer starting university until 2021. This is a complex and significant decision, and an engineer (or prospective engineer) would typically use some sort of decision-making strategy. I’ve written about one decision approach, the Kepner-Tregoe method, in the past with respect to choosing a university. For the decision to defer starting university, let’s try a cost-benefit analysis method.

The cost-benefit analysis method is relatively straightforward. We start with the decision statement “defer starting (or returning) to university until September 2021“. Then we summarize the costs, benefits, and risks resulting from that decision. Following is my generic analysis as it applies to Waterloo Engineering, although the specifics will depend on each individual’s circumstances.

The most obvious tangible cost is that starting a year later will postpone graduation for a year, resulting in the loss of one year’s worth of salary from your working career. This will vary a lot, depending on the job and location, but let’s say around $65,000 as a rough estimate for that initial year. This cost can be reduced somewhat if you work during the deferred year, or you plan to work an extra year beyond your retirement target.

An intangible cost of deferring is the possibility of getting “rusty” in your math and other academic skills. This may make the 2021 start a bit rougher.

I can’t think of any quantifiable tangible benefits. You delay the tuition costs for one year, but eventually still have to pay them. We could quantify this as saving 1 year of interest on the postponed tuition, but we’ll have to take into account the increased tuition cost due to inflation. Overall, I doubt that there is a significant financial benefit (and possibly even a small cost).

The purported intangible benefit is that you will start in 2021 with on-campus classes and a better experience and learning environment.

Before weighing the costs and benefits and deciding whether to accept this decision, we should always itemize the risks to the decision. The risks include potentially incorrect assumptions, possible unintended consequences, and other issues that may affect the outcome of the decision. Here are a few that I can think of:

  • September 2021 may still be an online or modified type of course delivery. Deferring for a year assumes that the pandemic will have finished, or an effective vaccine will have been delivered. There are various reasons to doubt both of these assumptions.
  • If you and many others defer to 2021, that class may end up being quite large. Any benefit of on-campus classes (if they happen) could be diluted by the larger class sizes and strained resources.
  • The decision to defer pre-supposes that an in-person course is a significantly better learning experience than online. It is certainly different, but it’s not clear to me that one is significantly better than the other in terms of learning outcomes. Preliminary feedback from the current term suggests that it can be a pretty good learning experience. Some students have even suggested that they like it better online. We have always had students that didn’t like the on-campus experience (and either left or failed out).

Considering the costs, benefits, and risks (or uncertainties), personally if I was a student I would not accept the decision to defer to 2021, i.e. I would start/return this fall with the online courses. (As a faculty member I have no choice and am working hard on setting up an online course, which I think will be reasonably good.)

There are likely various other costs, benefits, or risks that I haven’t thought of, so feel free to add some to the comments section.

2 thoughts on “Defer University?

  1. Thanks for the read.

    Speaking as a student who has experienced one term of online schooling, I can say that it was considerably worse from on-campus classes in many regards, which are perhaps reasons to defer your online term. For one, being surrounded by friends and other students, having the entire physical campus at your disposal to study or let off steam (gym, library, hangout spots, lounges). Having like-minded people of your age around you for the term increases your motivation to do well in school and allows you to enjoy the term with friends when you’re not studying. It is obvious to me that this is one of the major positives of traditional universities, and why students often live together even when being on-campus is not necessary. Another important aspect is the quality of online teaching, which I found to be severely decreased compared to in-class university. I have had and heard of professors who did not contact anyone from the class until the 2nd or 3rd week of the term, some who did not post their assignments in the Assignments folder, some who accidentally forgot to record lectures, some who posted PDFs and audio files only, and so on. There is also the issue of tests and quizzes, which are more easily copied from other students and do not permit for the same level of learning and competition among students. (The fact that tuition remained the same price despite the drop in quality was an annoying factor as well.)

    There is also the view that university is meant to simply be a stepping stone to reach the job market, where you are viewed favourably by employers due to your diploma, but the learning you did in those years (and the classes/office hours you attended) is considered as largely useless (perhaps in the context of employment/job skills). This is a view that is fairly popular (based off of people I have spoken to in similar situations to me.) This would definitely validate your point that students should not defer, to avoid delaying their number of working years. However, there is also the perspective that the learning done in university (by way of classes/professors) should be cherished, and can aid in a better understanding of the world and increase real-life skills. This is a view I would consider to be “mainstream”, and one I would definitely assume professors (such as yourself) hold. And when the learning of these skills is so much more conducive in an on-campus term, this is a powerful argument to defer (so that you can attend in-class lectures).

    (The above point is reliant on the fact that online classes are not well organized or taught, which has been my experience. I personally think there is potential for online classes to be equal if not better to traditional lectures due to technology (digital whiteboards, potential for async teaching, increased communication). However, from personal experience and the experience of other students I have spoken to shows that the current state of teaching falls far short of my vision.))

    Again, I appreciate the post and the insightful analysis. And it should be noted that I am writing this with the benefit of hindsight of the first online term, so maybe that could clear up some of the different wavelengths between my comment and the post.

    • Thanks for your experiential insights and comments. Yes, I would expect that there will be a mixed-bag of results with different instructors and courses. We were forced to rapidly adapt to online teaching with minimal warning, experience or prep time, and the shift online requires significant numbers of hours to do somewhat well. A typical launch of well-designed and functional online course would take a year of prep work and testing, from what I’ve seen in the past.

      Presumably things will improve with each coming term as instructors get more experience with the technologies and pedagogies. As an instructor I would prefer the face-to-face connections too, but that’s not the world we currently live in. As for deferring studies, I can understand the sentiment. But, I have no particular faith that an effective and safe vaccine will be deployed anytime soon (having some reasonably good scientific understanding about how these things work, are manufactured, and deployed). So it still comes down to: do you take what you can currently get, or wait until maybe Fall 2021 or even possibly beyond in 2022? The typical “engineering approach” to these situations is to make the best with what you’ve got and try to mitigate the downsides through creative design and operations.


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