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TORONTO—At the University of Manitoba, where she enrolled after high school, it seemed to take Angela Conrad forever to satisfy her degree requirements by taking courses in women’s studies, Greek mythology, and other courses she considered impractical.
All she really wanted was a job in marketing.
“It takes people two years, sometimes three years, to finish” their mandatory 30 credit hours of general studies at the university, Conrad said. “It made me think there had to be a learning style that was faster and more practical than that.”
Conrad, 23, recounts this in the student lounge at Toronto’s George Brown College, the Canadian equivalent of an American community college, where she transferred after giving up on a four-year degree from a university in favor of a two-year diploma.
“This is better,” Conrad said. “The teachers really do hands-on kinds of things.” She already even has a job while she studies, organizing events for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Lessons From Abroad
This story is part of The Hechinger Report’s ongoing series on what the U.S. can learn from higher education in other countries.
Hugely popular for emphasizing practical skills that lead directly to careers, community colleges like George Brown get most of the credit for making Canada among the top nations in the world (it’s second, just after South Korea) in the proportion of the population between the ages of 25 and 34 who hold some sort of postsecondary degree, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. More than half of all Canadians have such degrees, and half of those went to community colleges.
That’s an upside-down version of the American system, in which community colleges—while they enroll nearly half of all undergraduates—are a drag on the nation’s higher-education standing. The OECD now puts the United States a distant 16th in the world in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with a postsecondary qualification. Only one in 10 Americans has finished a credential at a community college, compared with more than one in four Canadians.
One reason is that American community colleges have to deal with students who are less well prepared. Forty-two percent arrive needing at least one remedial course in math and English, according to the U.S. Department of Education, most attend part time, and barely 20 percent finish their two-year degrees in even three years.
By contrast, Canadian community colleges increasingly attract students who already have university degrees (a fifth to a third of their enrollment, depending on the school) or who, like Conrad, have given up on universities and transferred (about one in six). So prevalent has this become that one community college in northwest Toronto, Humber College, now has more graduate business students than any Canadian university.
The bottom line, said Scott McAlpine, president of Douglas College in the Vancouver suburb of New Westminster: Community colleges in Canada “are not an inferior good.”
The rate at which students in Canada complete credentials at colleges, as opposed to at universities, is more than double that of most other OECD countries, including the United States. And their market share is growing—it’s now 61 percent in Ontario, for instance, up from 57 percent in 2005—while university market share in that province has fallen from 43 percent to 39 percent, according to the Ontario College Application Service.
“The collective wisdom is, if you want to get a job, going to a college will mean nine times out of 10 you’ll be employed in your area of interest six months after graduation,” said James Knight, president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges. “Not to be negative about any other form of education, but we’ve discovered we can do this extremely well.”
So well that if community colleges were taken out of the equation, and only the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with four-year university degrees were considered, Canada would fall back to eighth in that measure, behind the United States, several northern European countries, South Korea and Australia.
Canadian community colleges benefit from other advantages. Students coming from the country’s primary and secondary schools are more ready for the demands of higher education than their counterparts in most other countries, with Canadian 15-year-olds scoring sixth in the world on international tests of reading ability, eighth in science, and 10th in math, according to the most recent OECD rankings, released in late 2010. American students come in 17th, 23rd and 31st, respectively.
“Unlike in some other countries, for the most part all students [in Canada] do reasonably well,” said Glen Jones, a researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. “There isn’t the notion of low preparedness, which you could argue the American community colleges are set up to address. That’s not an issue in Canada.”
There are other reasons for Canada’s first-in-the-world participation rate in higher education. One is that postsecondary study is comparatively cheap, though prices vary widely by province. General and vocational colleges in Quebec are free, for example, except for a low registration fee. Average undergraduate tuition at community colleges in Ontario is $2,100 a year, and at universities it is $5,951.
Also, more than a third of immigrants to Canada—and more than half of those who have arrived since 2002—already have postsecondary degrees, nearly triple the proportion in the United States. Most put a premium on their children following in their footsteps, and nearly 60 percent are from Asian cultures that place a high value on postsecondary education. Seventy percent of East-Asian immigrants to Canada in the Toronto area, for instance, go on to college, compared to 42 percent of their classmates who were born in Canada.
While American institutions struggle to enroll and retain immigrant students, as much as 60 percent of the enrollment at some community colleges in Canada is made up of people who were born somewhere else. In collaboration with the government, the colleges’ professional association has recruiters in the Philippines, India, China and more than 20 other countries encouraging immigrants to apply for admission before they even arrive in the country.
Meanwhile, the agency Human Resources and Skills Development Canada estimates that up to 65 percent of new jobs in Canada require postsecondary degrees, and the community colleges have leapt into the breach. Far more nimble than universities, they can start new programs in quick reaction to employer demand.
George Brown, for instance—once known almost exclusively for training chefs, and now spread across two campuses with another under construction on the Toronto lakefront—started a gaming program when a gaming company moved to town. Begun with 40 students in 2007, it now has 350 in sleek, high-tech classrooms. When the government extended services for autistic children, requiring more specialists, the college fast-tracked a diploma in behavioral science.
“We don’t have the same approval process” as a university, said Anne Sado, George Brown’s president. “We can have a program up and running within months.”
But what’s driving the success of Canadian community colleges as much as anything is the same idea that lured Angela Conrad from the University of Manitoba to George Brown College: that at a time when higher education costs so much, it should lead as directly as possible to a career.
“The last few years has really put this under the microscope, that learning has to lead to something,” said Ann Buller, president of Centennial College on the outskirts of Toronto. “The idea of education for education’s sake, I love that. I hope that never goes away. But in a world where taxpayers pay and students pay to go here, in the end, I want my graduates to get jobs.”
In Canada, this has sparked a national debate about the very value of an undergraduate degree from a university as opposed to a community college, especially in the arts and humanities.
“Fortunately, our community colleges are in the real world,” wrote one columnist in the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper, which ran a series of stories last spring that elevated such rumblings to a level that has clearly alarmed the universities.
“There are some folks in Canada who will say the universities aren’t as relevant as they used to be, and they’ll go to the colleges,” said Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, which, its name notwithstanding, represents the universities.
Even though university graduates continue to earn more over their lifetimes than those who attend community colleges, Davidson concedes that the timing is right for colleges that unabashedly promise their students fast employment.
“In a period of economic downturn, people may put the immediate concerns higher up the priority list—I want my child to go on to a higher education and get a good job,” Davidson said.
As their role has changed, so have the colleges’ prestige and even their appearance. Classroom buildings constructed in the 1970s of cinderblock are overshadowed by the newly opened, stylish $46 million copper-sheathed library at Centennial College on Toronto’s eastern fringe, for instance.
Centennial’s success has come because “we teach people how to do things,” said Buller, who also chairs the board of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges. “Perhaps really wealthy societies can afford for all of us to learn just for the sake of learning. For me, knowledge that doesn’t translate into action is just trivia.”
The universities, not surprisingly, don’t take that kind of talk—or the community colleges’ popularity—sitting down. One way they’ve fought back is to refuse to accept college credits for transfer into graduate and professional programs. Two provinces—Alberta and British Columbia—now require them to do so, however, under a complex approval process, and others may follow suit.
But David Naylor, president of the University of Toronto, argues that “successful societies depend on creative people who are well-rounded. That only comes from the grounding of curricula that are available at universities.”
In his office overlooking one of the campus’s classic quadrangles near the city center, Naylor said: “Applied education is sterile. And the view that graduates in arts or the humanities are somehow fiddling away four years is regressive. It’s a classic trap in logic people fall into when they imagine that every university degree has to have some employability prospect.”
Universities, he said, train people for a range of skills, and graduates in the humanities often go on to professional schools in law and business.
“I have no interest in running a vocational school,” Naylor said.
Some 22,500 students transfer course credits back and forth among British Columbia’s public postsecondary institutions annually, including 3,300 from universities who move to community colleges, according to the British Columbia Council on Admissions and Transfer. But in other provinces, including Ontario, the refusal of universities to accept community-college credits is a source of growing frustration.
In response, community colleges in Canada have started adding their own four-year university-style degree programs.
“Snobbery,” John Davies, the Oxford-educated president of Humber College, called the universities’ resistance to accepting transfer credits. “The reason we’re in the business of four-year degrees at all is because of that difficulty for our students,” he said.
Knight said the walls between institutions are likely to fall, largely out of the universities’ self-interest. “Nobody yet has run short of students,” he said. “Now it’s beginning to happen. Some universities are having trouble attracting enough students to keep themselves viable,” and will need to accept transfer students from community colleges to fill the gap, Knight said.
Some see room for both models of higher education.
“University is not for everybody,” said Stephen Toope, president of the University of British Columbia, half a continent away. “A diversity of higher education is what a country needs.”
The community colleges “have not been considered second rate here,” Toope said before donning his academic gown and heading outside for a commencement ceremony in a rose garden overlooking English Bay and downtown Vancouver. “Some of these college programs are fantastic.”
A version of this story appeared in The Washington Post on January 30, 2012.