I have often thought that it is a bit confusing how, in the U.S., Americans tend to use the word “college” and “university” interchangeably. In Canada, I would think to myself, the two are distinctly different institutions and we know what distinguishes one from the other. But, I really need to start questioning that assertion as the differences between universities and colleges in Canada are far from straightforward.
Type into Google, “What’s the difference between a university and college in Canada?” and you’d be surprised by the large number of answers. The College Alberta website even has helpfully compiled a long list of responses from external sources. A few examples:
“Universities focus on academic and professional programs. Colleges focus more on career training and trades.” – (settlement.org)
“In Canada, a University is an education institution that can grant degrees (BA, BSc, MA, PHd, etc). Colleges can grant certificates or diplomas, but not degrees.” – (answers.com)
“In Canada, and many other parts of the world, colleges are vocational institutions where you can learn a trade or a two year Associate degree in Arts or Science. Many students will complete the first two years of their Bachelor’s degree at a college and finish the last 2 years at a university. Colleges have some advantages over universities: they generally have smaller class sizes and the professors are more focused on student successes and less focused on research related endeavors.” (wereyouwondering.com)
I also found this definition, not included on the College Alberta site:
In the Canadian higher education system there is a clear distinction between “colleges” and “universities”. A Canadian college is for individuals seeking applied careers, such as a payroll administrator, medical office assistant, graphic designer or legal administrative assistant, whereas a Canadian university is for individuals seeking more academic or professional careers.
Parts of these answers have a ring of truth. If you are seeking a professional degree in areas like law, medicine and engineering – along with graduate studies – then a university is your only choice. And, certainly, university professors generally are more focused on research than their college counterparts – although some universities have implemented “teaching stream” faculty positions where professors have little or no research responsibilities, while colleges are becoming more involved in research and are now eligible for some federal research funding.
The claim that colleges focus more on career/vocational training is also true, up to a point. As Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates noted in a blog post, only 16 percent of students in diploma and certificate programs at Canadian colleges are in technical and trades-related programs. Over 60 percent of college students are studying in areas that have considerable overlap with university programs – for example, business and administration, fine arts, social sciences and humanities, and sciences.
There is also, institutionally, the slow but steady creep of some colleges towards university status. In B.C. over the years, a handful of colleges became “university colleges” and then finally full universities. Mount Royal and Grant MacEwan in Alberta, originally colleges, are also now full-fledged universities. And, in Ontario, many community colleges now offer four-year “applied” degrees and one of its members, Sheridan College, recently announced it too wants to become a full university. As Mr. Usher concluded, “There simply isn’t a sharp dividing line between colleges and universities anymore.”
There is much more to be said on this topic, but I’ll leave it at that for now.