Ian Collins was almost a cliché. He finished a degree in visual arts at the University of Western Ontario and then spent four years waiting tables. “I was going in for job interviews, but I wouldn’t get the job,” explains the Toronto resident. The deal breaker? “It was always because someone else had real-world experience.” So Collins decided to enrol in a one-year diploma in sport and event marketing at George Brown College because, he says, it had a built-in internship. That led to a job after graduation, and now he’s an account executive at the marketing firm Zoom Media. At 31, Collins has his career on track. “College helped me by getting my foot in the door,” he says.
It’s no wonder students like Collins are looking to college for a different path. Despite the fact that Canada has the second-highest rate of education spending in proportion to our GDP, we’re nearly the worst of the 32 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries when it comes to placing grads in jobs they are qualified for. That’s especially hard to swallow considering the price of education today. With student debt load reaching a record high—nearly $27,000 for university students last year and about half that for college grads—more Canadians than ever before are considering college as a less expensive, more job-oriented alternative to the ivory towers.
Following the trend at universities, college presidents across the country are reporting increased enrolment since the recession. While Statistics Canada does not have recent numbers for the colleges, the Association of Canadian Community Colleges expects enrolment levels to be at an all-time high this year.
Converts like Collins are not the only ones praising the college alternative these days. Bill Green, chairman and CEO of the $21.6-billion consulting firm Accenture, is an outspoken advocate of community colleges. The greatest proof of his commitment: he convinced his 21-year-old son David to go to Dean, a community college in Massachusetts, instead of one of America’s elite private universities. “I believe many people who attend universities might be better served attending a community college to get started,” says Green, also a Dean graduate. “Colleges have been overlooked, undervalued and underappreciated for far too long.”
In the U.S., community colleges are seen as a panacea for the country’s economic woes: President Barack Obama and second lady Jill Biden held the first-ever White House summit on community colleges in October. International foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also pledged millions of dollars to community colleges.
Even those on the inside of the ivory towers advise students to consider their options. Laura Penny, a professor at Mount Saint Vincent in Halifax and author of More Money Than Brains, an acerbic tome about higher education today, says university is too often seen as the default after high school. “People who want a broad experience or who are going to qualify for medicine, law or graduate degrees should go to university.”
Everyone else, she says, should look elsewhere. “I think a lot of people who go to university would be much happier in community college, and less indebted. Especially if what they are looking for is the credential for a job. A university degree does not guarantee a job.”
Ashley Pelletier took the college route after high school. Now, at 24, she has already landed a job as an associate at a big accounting firm in Toronto. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was in high school, and going to college didn’t require all the specific courses that are required for university.” She applied to a variety of programs at Seneca College and settled on accounting.
There, she found small class sizes, helpful teachers and lots of guidance for her career. “You get to know your profs and all of them had relevant industry experience,” she explains. “University is totally theoretical, whereas the professors at college are more practical.” While in college, she worked at RBC Dexia, and then translated her accounting and ﬁnance diploma into an accounting degree at York University. She sees her three years at Seneca as a bridge to her career. “It was a long haul but I don’t think I would have done as well at university if I didn’t start at college.”
Pelletier’s experience—capping a college diploma with a university degree—is also indicative of the increasingly porous border between colleges and universities. Seneca College president David Agnew says colleges and universities used to have distinct purposes, but “now, that’s completely changed.”
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