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Margin Notes

Where does college end and university begin?

In Canada, the distinctions between the two are not straightforward.


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.” – (

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.” – (

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.” (

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.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Glen A. Jones / March 21, 2012 at 16:18

    You are raising an interesting question here, but you begin from a false assumption. There is no such thing as a “Canadian model” of a college. While there are common elements that define Canadian universities (and AUCC plays a role in defining these elements by establishing criteria for membership), the provinces moved in quite different directions in terms of creating colleges to serve the needs of the system. There are major differences in the role of CEGEPs within the Quebec higher education system compared with the British Columbia or Alberta community colleges (with their explicit transfer function) in those systems, or the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology in Ontario. There are some interesting common trends that one can identify in some provinces, such as college degree-granting (now found, in different forms, in about half the provinces), but these common trends are emerging within quite different provincial systems (not to mention the colleges located in the three territories) and involve quite different “types” of colleges.

    Some of these trends are international. Many of the non-university postsecondary institutions in continental Europe have offered degrees for some time, and in some jurisdictions they are now expanding into masters and doctoral programming (in some cases for the same reasons that underscored the expansion of degree-granting in Canada, because of a need to expand access and, in some cases, provide programs for students who have found it difficult to have their credentials recognized by the university sector). There continue to be major differences between sectors, but these differences probably have more to do with the research function of the university and the types of program offerings by institution than on the nature of the credential.

    Another factor that seems to be true in many systems is that the non-university sector (the colleges in Canada) have more diverse populations (in terms of greater representation from lower socio-economic groups, and other forms of diversity) than the universities. Given this fact, these institutions are increasingly viewed as key in discussions of expanding access to under-represented populations. In other words, one of the reasons for blurring some of the boundaries between universities and colleges is that the colleges seem to be able to attract and support students who might not otherwise pursue a postsecondary education.

    Glen A. Jones

  2. lcharbonneau / March 22, 2012 at 08:34

    I ended my blog post, above, with the observation that “there is much more to be said on this topic,” and I thank Dr. Jones for doing just that. And he is absolutely correct that I began with a false assumption — like many, I had an *idea* of what a college is. But, as Dr. Jones points out, there is not one model for colleges in Canada.

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