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College and University in Canada: What Is the Difference?

Thursday | March 29, 2018 | by Shaunna-Marie Kerr

Adult students studying together in library

Roughly 53 percent of Canadians over the age of 15 have completed some level of postsecondary education, attending either a university, college, vocational school, or collège d’enseignement général et professionnel (CÉGEP). In Canada, each province or territory is responsible for designating schools at the post-secondary level, and each post-secondary institution has its own set of rules on how to apply, which level of English or French language is required, and what the associated fees for application and study will be. This article focuses on the differences between college and university in Canada, and how to choose the right option for your educational and employment goals.

College in Canada

Unlike the United States, where the term college refers to local or community schools that offer undergraduate degrees, the college system in Canada was developed to provide technical training and diplomas that respond to shifting labour trends and the needs of a changing economy.

As explained by Kevin Kamal, Associate Director of Institutional Client Relations for WES, “Colleges have historically had a mandate to serve local communities, and had good success launching innovative employment services while designing programs of study based on labor market trends and needs of employers.” In short, colleges typically focus on specific employment skills, career training, and trades. For more information on colleges in Canada, visit Colleges and Institutes Canada.

In addition to the specific focus on employability, colleges also tend to have smaller class sizes, with a lower student-to-instructor ratio. This is beneficial for students who learn best with individualized attention and the ability to engage more directly with teachers. These programs can also provide additional practical experience through bridge-to-apprenticeship training options as well as language and skills upgrading.

Many international students or professionals with previous degrees also appreciate the shorter certificate and diploma programs offered by colleges in Canada. Especially in the context of continuing education and professional development, college programs can be used to complement a degree from outside of Canada as a stackable credential.

University in Canada

University in Canada refers to academic institutions that are regulated by provincial legislation but are autonomous in terms of academic matters such as quality of programs, instructors, and policies and procedures. Distinct from colleges, which grant diplomas, universities in Canada are defined as degree-granting institutions that provide bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Universities typically focus on analytical skills (the ability to understand and use information), and academic and professional programs. For more information on universities in Canada, visit Universities Canada.

Because of the longer length of time it takes to complete a university program—typically three to four years—these programs are sometimes less attractive options for international students or professionals who are interested in a quicker, stackable credential. University degrees do come at a higher financial cost than college programs but information on fiancial aid is readily available.

For those who would like to obtain their first undergraduate degree, or who are interested in a professional program like medicine and law, universities are a good option. Obtaining a university degree is also necessary for anyone who is interested in working in academia or research-based professions.

With a higher student-to-instructor ratio, university programs offer more independence than many college programs. This necessitates a strong sense of time management and self-motivation. In the later years of an undergraduate program, during a master’s, and doctoral degree, the amount of self-directed study increases and students are able to focus on more specific areas of interest.

Continuing Education in Canada

Continuing education and professional development are valued in the Canadian workplace, and as shared by a recent Spotlight on Success, can be a useful step in your career journey. Whether you choose to enrol at a college to obtain a certificate or diploma or at a University to obtain a bachelor’s or postgraduate degree, continuing your education can lead to new and rewarding career pathways.

Shaunna-Marie Kerr

Shaunna-Marie Kerr is the Program Manager at WES Global Talent Bridge Canada.