All she really wanted was a job in marketing.
“It takes people two years, sometimes three years, to finish” Manitoba’s mandatory general-studies track, Conrad said. “It made me think there had to be a learning style that was faster and more practical than that.”
Conrad, 23, found one at Toronto’s George Brown College, the Canadian equivalent of an American community college, where she transferred after giving up on a four-year university degree in favor of a two-year diploma.
“This is better,” Conrad recounted in the student lounge of the bustling downtown campus one recent day. “The teachers really do hands-on kinds of things.” Conrad also has a job while she studies, organizing events for the Hudson’s Bay Co. department-store chain.
Hugely popular for emphasizing practical skills that lead directly to careers, community colleges — most of which simply call themselves colleges, as opposed to universities — get much of the credit for making Canada second in the world in the percentage of young people ages 25 to 34 who hold some sort of postsecondary degree, according to a 2011 report from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. More than half of all Canadians have such degrees, and half of those went to community college.
That’s an upside-down version of the American system, in which community colleges — while enrolling nearly half of all undergraduates — are a drag on the nation’s higher-education standing. The OECD puts the United States at 16th in the world in the percentage of young people with a postsecondary qualification. South Korea ranks first.
Only one in 10 Americans has finished a community college, compared with more than one in four Canadians. One reason is that students enter U.S. community colleges considerably less prepared. Forty-two percent arrive needing at least one remedial course in math or English, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Most attend part time, and barely 20 percent finish two-year degrees within three years.
By contrast, Canadian community colleges increasingly attract students who, like Conrad, have given up on universities and transferred, or who already have university degrees. So prevalent has this become that one community college in northwest Toronto, Humber College, now has more graduate business students than any Canadian university. And two-year colleges have become far more nimble than universities, starting new programs in quick reaction to employer demand.
Scott McAlpine, president of Douglas College in suburban Vancouver, said: “Colleges in Canada are not an inferior good.”
As George Brown student Randy Orenstein put it: While universities teach you how to think, “colleges teach you how to do. There is less philosophical navel-gazing. It does seem to be very much that universities are about the abstract and colleges about practical skills.”
Orenstein, 28, wanted a job in the fast-growing Canadian gaming industry, which is why he transferred to George Brown. Previously, he had enrolled in a visual-arts program at York University in Toronto to study photography and sculpture.
At York, he said, “I kept wondering, why do I really need to learn theories of city construction when all I want to do is take photographs and make bronzes?”
George Brown is largely a collection of red-brick former industrial buildings, including one where greeting cards were once printed. The school is in a trendy neighborhood near Toronto’s downtown that’s home to the Canadian headquarters of Monster.com and Quest software and offices of the French videogame developer Ubisoft and AutoDesk, a 3D software developer that also produces videogames.
All administrators had to do was look around to realize that there would be demand for a program in gaming. Launched in 2007, the program has grown from 40 students to 350. It opened a facility in the fall with glittering labs on two floors of a new building and tablets at each workstation that let students draw directly onto LCD screens.
From the start, Orenstein said, “I remember being blown away and incredibly excited that the lecturers were coming in and they weren’t talking about theoretical frameworks. They were saying, ‘Here’s what you’re going to paid. Here’s what you’re going to do. Here’s how you’re going to get a job.’”
More than four-fifths of George Brown students get jobs within six months of graduation. Many of those enrolled at George Brown already have a university degree or, like Orenstein, began at a university and transferred.
“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 chief executive 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.”
Canadian community colleges have other advantages. Students in the country’s secondary schools appear to be better prepared for higher education than counterparts elsewhere. Canadian 15-year-olds rank sixth in the world on international tests of reading ability, eighth in science and 10th in math, according to a 2010 OECD report. American students rank 17th, 23rd and 31st, respectively, in those subjects.
“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.”
Postsecondary study in Canada is comparatively cheap, though prices vary by province. General and vocational colleges in Quebec are free, for example, except for a nominal registration fee. Average undergraduate tuition at community colleges in Ontario is $2,100 a year, and at universities, $5,951, compared with averages of $2,713 and $7,605, respectively, for comparable public institutions in the United States.
But what’s driving the success of Canadian community colleges as much as anything is the idea that lured Angela Conrad to George Brown: When higher education costs so much to provide, it should lead as directly as possible to a job.
“The last few years have really put this under the microscope, that learning has to lead to something,” said Ann Buller, president of Centennial College, on Toronto’s outskirts. “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.”
This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. Other Hechinger stories in The Post in recent months have explored higher education trends in Japan, India and Great Britain.