Community College or University?
July 29th, 2011

Community College or University? How about all of the above? A recent trend shows a huge spike in the number of Canadian university graduates who are enrolling in college programs to enhance their applied skills. Colleges have long offered more practical educational pathways, and so perhaps it is not surprising that in an unwelcoming job market university graduates would be seeking practical ways of extending their résumés—to look less academic, more experienced and prepared for the so-called real world.  We are living with a pretty limited language of “outcomes” now, like it or not, and so if the outcome of a university degree is unemployment you can appreciate why the trend might be towards colleges.

Obviously, this shift is making university recruiters quite agitated. Enrolment in colleges has gone up significantly in the last decade, with more and more high school graduates considering them over universities. Some are forecasting that in the not-too-distant future college grads will be in demand over university grads by a ratio of 6 to 1. Since we are all in a recruiting race—s/he who gets the most new registrations wins—this news makes the environment even more competitive.

Reactions to this trend from post secondary education leaders have been revealing. College leaders are applauding the shift while some university presidents are not too subtly observing the death of civilization as we know it. Implied in the tension is an inherent class-based binary between institutional systems: applied workers with hands-on experience and job preparedness vs. intellectual elitists who never have to break into a sweat for a living.

This bias is as old as ivy. My own high school peers never even considered college as an option. That was for the losers. I still wince today recalling our snobby reaction to one of our group who had chosen to enter a college nursing program. We all thought that was the lowest you could possibly stoop to—a profession where you would likely not only get your hands dirty but you would have to wear a uniform, a class indicator if there ever were one. Where did we get such an idea? Maybe some of that privileged attitude came from our parents, but what was circulating in the culture to give us such extraordinary prejudices? Who called it a golden age, anyway?

While I won’t ever likely change my deep wish that everyone in our society should get a university education, I am glad things—and attitudes–have changed. Not everyone is suited for university, surely. A few sobering years teaching first-year English can easily discourage any false belief in the salutary effect of a university education. Just because I can’t imagine having chosen any other way to learn or lead my life does not make it a mandatory pathway to good citizenship or happiness. What does concern today’s students—and their parents—is that an education should lead to something—a job, at least. I am not entirely wedded to that view but we do have a responsibility to let our students know what the possibilities are, and even to provide some practical experience in the service of such possibilities.

It is inevitable, I think, that universities will be developing more bridging programs and/or partnerships with colleges. The high schooler in me would have been appalled. The relatively more informed adult dean knows better. Territorial, competitive, and wired to act alone, we are not very good at encouraging mobility between universities, let alone different educational systems, and so it will take some skilful thinking through about how best to maintain the integrity of our respective programs; of course, it will also take people who are open to imagining new degree combinations. One can imagine, say, a split Bachelor’s degree, two years in each system—meshing theoretical and practical approaches to a field of study. It’s a radical idea encouraged by the market, by society, by our own need to relax our attitudes about what kind of education is superior to any other. It is also a way towards a more diversified Higher Ed system. Bring it on.

Dr. Noreen Golfman is Professor of English and Dean of Graduate Studies. Her post secondary education included study at McGill, University of Alberta, and University of Western Ontario. She has been teaching and writing in the areas of Canadian literature and film studies for most of her career. She is the president of the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences, founding director of the annual St. John's International Women's Film Festival, and director of the MUN Cinema Series. Dr. Golfman's blog 'Postcards From the Edge' will be updated every Thursday.

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