While most college programs are geared toward good career prospects, in some high-demand fields, competition for places can be red-hot, with as many as 12 applicants for every seat.
"These high-demand programs, that's what they offer: the opportunity to get a job when they graduate," says Glenn Vollebregt, president and chief executive officer at St. Lawrence College, an applied arts and technology school.
With campuses in Brockville, Cornwall and Kingston, St. Lawrence has almost 8,000 students across the board, with class sizes of 30 to 40 students.
Mr. Vollebregt estimates that about 50 per cent of the school's enrolment is in health and health-related programming. Fitness and health promotion programs are popular, too. Sustainability programs, such as energy systems and wind turbine technician, are also proving in demand, along with data and data analytics courses.
With what he estimates to be 90 per cent of students getting a job within the first six months following graduation from St. Lawrence, the appeal of courses linked to job prospects is easy to understand.
"When I work at job fairs, more and more you hear from our students … it's 'What kind of job am I going to get?'" he says.
That job may be very different from that of their parents, though. Langara College in Vancouver has high demand for courses in science programs and business, and increasingly in computer science and computer technology. The latter two appeal to the fact that "Vancouver seems to have become a bit of a tech hub now," says Ajay Patel, associate vice-president, international and external development.
Mr. Patel believes that student choices are dictated by the belief that their careers will have to be flexible. "Students realize that the education they get may be very different than the careers that they evolve themselves into, and so they are becoming much more broad-minded," he says.
Saskatchewan Polytechnic undergoes an annual review of its most popular courses, which are currently dental hygiene, medical radiologic technology, power engineering technology, practical nursing and psychiatric nursing.
While the formal definition of these high-demand programs is 2.5 times more applicants than spaces available, that definition is based on qualified applicants only. The reality far exceeds that, however, with last year's medical radiologic technology course receiving 12 applicants for every seat, and power engineering getting nine times more applicants than seats available. As a polytechnic that prides itself on small classes, most cohorts are around the 24-student mark.
"It really shows that there's heavy, heavy demand from students," says Anne Neufeld, provost and vice-president, academic, at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, which has four campuses throughout the province.
While the school's website points out the potential salary ranges for each of its programs, and in each of the five high-demand programs the upper scale of that is in the $75,000-$95,000 range, well-paying jobs are just one of the factors behind their popularity.
According to Dr. Neufeld, role modelling is another reason for the popularity of certain courses. She points to nursing as one such example that might attract a student to that course and line of work.
"Everybody would know a nurse; it might be your mom, it might be your aunt, it might be a cousin," she says.
Another might be because they can act as springboards to something else. For instance, in the case of its practical nursing diploma – which has from seven to 11 times the amount of applicants per seat, depending on the campus – Dr. Neufeld says it can be a pathway to becoming a registered nurse.
"You can do the two-year diploma, get a really good job and then at some point look at transitioning," she says.
As a result of the demand, Saskatchewan Polytechnic employs a two-step process for admission to its high-demand programs, focusing on grade-point average, high-school marks or any marks a student may have from other postsecondary education. But beyond that, it will also ask for essays, experience in the field and potentially a portfolio of work. For most courses, the institution operates on a first-qualified, first-admitted policy.
For those who don't get in, the school carries an annual wait list of about 20-25, in case of no-shows for the first week of school. But beyond that, it believes that students joining in at that point would be unable to catch up.
For those who do not meet requirements, Saskatchewan Polytechnic also offers general education diploma training through the school that may help boost their application for the following year.
The school also has one-year certificates that may help a candidate's application. For example, students who did not get into the dental hygiene course may want to consider the one-year certificate in dental assisting, because not only does it give them relevant skills, but it also shows them whether they enjoy and have aptitude for the industry.
However, there are no guarantees.
"They still need to apply," says Dr. Neufeld. "But at least they know what they're getting into and, for the most part, they'd be more competitive because they've shown that they understand the field and have completed a certificate."
While the school tries to accommodate as many students as possible, due to demand, it has had to turn away more than 2,000 qualified applicants in the past two years.
"It's tough because you know there's an individual out there who has their hopes set on something," Dr. Neufeld says. "At the same time, we're trying to balance with labour-market demand, so we don't want to saturate the market."