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You can get a job AND an education

Colleges and universities achieve these high rates of post-graduate employment for exactly the same reason: they prepare their students to work in the areas they have chosen to study.
Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO, Northern Policy Institute

I realize this may come as a shock to some, but it is possible for postsecondary institutions to provide students with what is known as a classical education AND to prepare them for employment. It is equally possible, indeed necessary, to develop critical thinking skills while also learning a trade.

For most of my adult life, I have been bombarded with the message that “college” is where people go to prepare for jobs, and “university” is where people go to enhance their knowledge or to improve society. Colleges routinely tout their post-graduation employment numbers; universities not so much. Universities talk about their scholarship and award winners, their research prizes, and their product commercialization. Colleges not so much.

It turns out, however, that university graduates get jobs. In fact, here in Ontario their post-graduation employment numbers are consistently better than those of the colleges. According to the Council of Ontario Universities, employment rates of the 2013 graduating class, for example, six months after graduation, was 87 per cent. Almost four in five university graduates had jobs. The comparable number for the Ontario college system was 83 per cent — not much of a gap, but a gap nonetheless — and not in favour of the organizations most of us would have expected. By the way, employment levels for university graduates two years after graduation are 94 per cent provincewide.

Colleges and universities achieve these high rates of post-graduate employment for exactly the same reason: they prepare their students to work in the areas they have chosen to study. College performance measures released in 2017 show 87 per cent of their students reporting that their program gave them the “knowledge and skills that will be useful” in their future career. Similar surveys of university graduates six month after graduation show an 83 per cent alignment, rising to 89 per cent two years after they have left university. Four in five students, at both college and university, are graduating with specific skills and knowledge that they report putting to work in related occupations. 

It also turns out that colleges, yes, colleges, offer reams of content related to the concepts of critical thinking and classical education. Even a cursory look at course offerings by colleges located in Northern Ontario demonstrate this blend of applied skills, soft skills and classical concepts. Ethics, interpersonal relations, statistics, report and creative writing, law, human behaviour, and creative arts, just to name a few, are courses where college students are introduced to classical literature, culture, thought and art. Colleges, like universities, are also increasing their Indigenous presence and content while expanding this cross-cultural awareness and experiential learning globally. A colleague of mine, who is a college graduate, spent time in Ukraine as part of her course of studies, learning and applying important concepts of cross-cultural awareness, communication and collaboration.

Given the harsh demographic realities of Northern Ontario, we simply cannot afford to sustain any longer the false dichotomy between university and college. You can get a quality, balanced and enriching education at either type of institution. Either one is also the “right” path to a job. Not just any job, but a good job.

Much like we can no longer afford the false dichotomy academics like to throw up between skills training, critical thinking and a liberal education, we similarly cannot continue to accept largely parental bias about what is a “good” job.  

If we are defining good jobs based on income, then there is very little to debate. Trades, transport and equipment operators, for example, make, on average, almost exactly the same hourly wage as those working in education, law and government services. If we are concerned about “white collar” work or working conditions, just compare the environment of an elementary school teacher to an electrician. As to being concerned about the stigma of “working with your hands," perhaps you have not met a biologist, a chemist, or an engineer.

Any path through postsecondary can lead to a highly skilled job via a quality, classical, critical education. It is time for universities to not be embarrassed about being good at preparing their graduates for employment. It is also time for everyone else to stop pretending that colleges provide second chance or second tier instruction.