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.


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