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Krysten Payne in Toronto.Jenna Marie Wakani/The Globe and Mail

Krysten Payne, whose father was a teacher, remembers being strongly encouraged to choose university over college after high school.

Payne, 29, describes himself as someone who likes to work with his hands – his first clue that university maybe wasn’t the best route to his dream job. Still, to please his family, Payne struck a compromise with his parents. He took applied technology courses after high school at Antigua and Barbuda Institute of Technology. From there, he studied at Toronto’s Seneca College, in a transfer program that qualifies graduates for university degree programs.

“I was definitely pressured to go to university. At that age, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life yet,” Payne remembers. “A lot of people get pushed into education, they keep going down a path, and next thing you know, you’re sitting behind a computer realizing you’re not doing what you want to do.”

Institutions that provide hands-on training, like colleges or polytechnics, have often been cast as the second-rate option to a university education. For students like Payne, the pressure to obtain a degree can override other priorities, like their interests or natural skills.

However, Statistics Canada data shows young people are balking at old notions of prestige when choosing their education. Students in Canada graduate from college diploma programs at a higher rate than their peers in other parts of the world.

Compared to countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, whose members, alongside Canada, include 38 countries across Europe, North and South America, and Asia-Pacific, youth in Canada are three times as likely to have a college diploma, at a rate of 24 per cent to 8 per cent, according to 2019 data.

For students like Payne, the pressure to obtain a degree can override other priorities, like their interests or natural skills.Jenna Marie Wakani/The Globe and Mail

This trend shows a shift in what students are looking for in post-secondary education. Graduating with hard skills, Dr. Susan Murray says, is coveted more.

“Today, employability has such importance in our work force and society. There’s such a high demand for skilled trade professionals,” Murray explains. An educator turned leadership consultant, Murray’s 25-year career has spanned positions from high school principal to college and university instructor. She says she still sees stigma around choosing an applied education.

“Even though university grads may not have some of those useful skill sets that a college diploma gives, we still sometimes favour that way of learning. There’s still a class system at play there.”

In his final year at Seneca, Payne landed a construction gig that paid $1,000 per week. That marked the end of his formal education. The idea of moving into a costly university program when he already had a steady income was hard to justify, especially since the programs in arts and science didn’t have clear pathways to employment after graduation.

“By the time someone goes through university and then gets themselves out of debt, they’re really not much further ahead than someone who spent that time being hands-on from the beginning,” Payne reasons.

When describing the difference between a college and university education, Murray says, “Traditionally, one thinks of college as practical, with a focus on employability. Some university degrees and professional faculties have employability as a focus too, but it’s usually alongside an academic research focus.”

Jason Murray, president of BIPOC Executive Search, an agency specializing in recruitment of Indigenous and racialized candidates, says the lines between college and university offerings have begun to blur.

“Colleges are taking some things out of the university playbook, and vice versa. Universities are offering things like experiential learning and co-ops, which is the practical piece we’re used to seeing from colleges,” he says. “We also see colleges looking to universities as a model for how to look at students holistically, focusing on more than just skill building.”

If employability is the goal, university and college graduates are on roughly equal footing when they leave school. Nationally, polytechnic graduates found jobs in their field of study within six months of graduating at a rate of 88 per cent in 2019, according to Polytechnics Canada.

In Ontario, which is home to more universities than any other province in Canada, university grads come out ahead of polytechnic students. The Council of Ontario Universities reports 89 per cent of graduates found a job somewhat related to their studies within six months of graduation. After two years, university graduates take a significant lead in the employability race, reaching an employment rate of 95 per cent, according to 2016 data.

Murray says for some employers, a candidate’s alma mater is regarded, however unfairly, as a clue about what that candidate will be like. Sometimes, he sees the preference for university graduates creep into the candidate selection process in his work.

“There still is a bias overall. People can’t help themselves. There are people who will look at the education section of someone’s CV before they start looking at their experience,” he says.

As candidates move up the career ladder and start eyeing roles at the executive level, Murray says experience trumps education in many cases. At that level, whether a candidate went to college or university is only important in particular job sectors.

“Some sectors don’t necessarily focus on education as much. You have executives that went to school for a particular subject and never applied what they learned during their career. In those instances, employers want to know that people have a set of experiences that show their ability to get results in the role,” he explains.

“On the other hand, you also have some professions where you’ll definitely need a particular degree. For example, if your goal is to become a chief financial officer, you’ll need that Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) designation,” he says. “That’s where thinking about what you ultimately want to do, and considering all the elements that a particular program offers to help you get there, really matters.”

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