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Instructors at George Brown College's midtown campus walk the picket line on Oct. 16, 2017.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In the wake of the province's longest-running college strike, a tenth of full-time students at Ontario's colleges have withdrawn from their courses this term. For many, the decision to drop out is a gamble that they are better off trying to be readmitted to their programs in the winter term or in the fall of 2018 rather than risking their grades after missing weeks of classes.

"The withdraw numbers released today are proof this option was necessary for thousands of students. Students didn't sign up for an extended semester, or condensed courses," said Emmaline Scharbach, the communications manager for the College Student Alliance, which represents full-time and part-time college students across the province.

Students have been back in class since Nov. 21 and will not be leaving until Dec. 22. Most colleges extended their fall terms to early January. Some have also added a week to the spring semester to make up for the time missed during the labour dispute.

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Back-to-work legislation ended the strike on Nov. 19. The outstanding issues between the 24 colleges and 12,000 instructors are being settled through binding arbitration. Academic freedom and the ratio of full-time to part-time instructors were key areas of dispute.

Student petitions asking for tuition fee refunds were launched early in the strike and garnered tens of thousands of signatures. The province announced that students would be able to receive refunds if they decided to withdraw and could also apply for up to $500 in grants to cover additional housing or travel costs they incurred. Colleges are expected to pay for the measures through the millions they saved as instructors walked the picket lines.

It is the first time in four college strikes that students have been compensated for the impact on their education. In a regular term, the retention rate is as high as 98 per cent, a source at the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development said. Those who do drop out tend to do so early in the term.

Hundreds of anxious students and their families turned to her group to seek advice on what to do, Ms. Scharbach said.

Because specific policies on how students can withdraw from a program vary across different colleges, there has been confusion over how to decide which route to take. At most schools, however, students have to apply to be readmitted. Colleges have warned students that they cannot guarantee a spot will exist for them in the following term.

"We hope colleges will ensure students who withdrew are able to return to their program, no questions asked, the following year or semester," Ms. Scharbach said.

The province has encouraged colleges to prioritize admission for students who withdrew late this fall, said a source at the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (MAESD).

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Nearly 25,700 full-time Ontario college students received tuition refunds, according to numbers released by MAESD on Tuesday. The percentage of part-time students who have withdrawn has not been made public.

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