Canada’s Number One International Ranking

By Michael L. Skolnik

According to the OECD publication, Education at a Glance 2017, in 2016 Canada had the largest percentage of 25-64 year-olds with a short-cycle tertiary education credential of any OECD member country. The term short-cycle tertiary education (SCTE) refers to postsecondary education programs of the type typically offered by community colleges and similar institutions which are of at least two and not more than three years’ duration.

Canada’s SCTE attainment rate is 26%, while the average for OECD member countries is 8%, and only three of the other 34 member countries had rates that were more than half of Canada’s. Largely as a consequence of its high rate of attainment of short-cycle tertiary education, Canada ranked first in total tertiary education attainment, though it was tied for 10th in bachelor degree attainment.

Outlier or Statistical Anomaly?

Some observers have dismissed Canada’s outlier status in SCTE attainment as a statistical anomaly resulting from the structure of Québec’s educational system. In Québec the secondary school ends with Grade 11, and students who wish to continue to a provincial university must first attend a college (CÉGEP) for two years after which they are eligible to enter university to earn what in most subjects is a three-year bachelor degree.

The requirement for university-bound students to first attend a CÉGEP and placing students in postsecondary institutions who are of an age that in other jurisdictions would be in secondary school no doubt give a hefty boost to Québec’s SCTE participation rate. However, it is doubtful that these education system features unduly boost Canada’s SCTE attainment rate, because of the province’s extraordinarily high college-to-university transfer rates — 80% for the pre-university stream and 30% for the applied stream. As transfer students earn bachelor degrees they would be counted in the bachelor degree rather than the SCTE attainment category.

Ontario probably contributes more than Québec to Canada’s high SCTE attainment rate because of its combination of high participation in the college sector and very low transfer rates and the fact that it accounts for a 50% larger share of Canada’s postsecondary enrolment than Québec. This expectation is borne out by Statistics Canada data which show Ontario with an SCTE attainment rate that is higher than the national average, while Québec’s rate is lower.

Explaining Canada’s Performance

The factors that explain the difference in SCTE attainment rates between Canada and other countries vary depending upon which countries are being compared with Canada. One might expect that the United States would have an SCTE attainment rate similar to Canada’s because the community college started in the United States and it has been such a prominent feature of U.S. higher education. However, the proportion of adults whose highest level of education is a community college credential is almost two and a half times as great in Canada as in the United States. Several factors are responsible for this difference. Colleges constitute the majority of postsecondary institutions in Canada, whereas they comprise less than 40% of postsecondary institutions in the United States. The proportion of students who begin postsecondary education in a college is substantially greater in Canada than in the United States. While the college graduation rate is about 30% in the United States, it is over 60% in Ontario and Québec.

College graduates who subsequently transfer to a university and earn a bachelor degree are not counted in the SCTE attainment category. However, this factor does little to offset the other factors that make Canada’s SCTE attainment rate much higher than that of the United States. Only 14-16 per cent of students who begin postsecondary education in an American community college obtain a bachelor degree, and the majority of them leave the community college before graduating. Comparable national figures are not available for Canada, but the bachelor degree completion rate in one province (Québec) is much higher than the U.S. rate, and the rate for British Columbia is likely higher too.

At about the same time as colleges were being established in Canada, similar types of institutions were developed in many other countries particularly in Europe. However, in most European countries colleges that started as short-cycle institutions similar to their Canadian counterparts evolved into primarily or exclusively baccalaureate-granting institutions with an applied orientation, often leaving a vacuum with respect to opportunities for short-cycle tertiary education. Thus, in 2015 the SCTE attainment rate for those aged 25-34 was zero in Finland, and 1% in the Netherlands.

Some Canadian colleges now offer a small number of baccalaureate programs, and in the past decade several colleges have been designated as universities. However, unlike European colleges that have become universities of applied sciences, the newly designated universities in Canada have maintained their commitment to sub-baccalaureate programs.

In Canada a much higher proportion of workforce preparation is based in educational institutions than is the case for many other countries. For example, in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland a substantial proportion of workforce preparation is industry-based — organized by industry associations, unions, and professional societies. The short-cycle tertiary education attainment rate is an indicator of the completion of programs that are based in tertiary education institutions. In most cases, the attainment of equivalent occupational competencies in an industry-based system of vocational education would not be reflected in a country’s SCTE attainment rate. For example, with Germany’s much admired system of workforce preparation, its SCTE attainment rate for 25-34 year olds in 2015 was zero per cent.

The comments above address the principal factors that explain Canada’s outlier status in international comparisons of short-cycle tertiary education attainment. A more difficult question is what difference does Canada’s international ranking with respect to this indicator make? Is it a source of strength economically or socially, or a source of weakness? These are questions that I will be addressing in future research, and I welcome input on these questions.

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