Former students and instructors at some of Ontario's private career colleges say that the province must monitor the schools' quality of education more closely, arguing that better instruction in the classroom is needed to improve job outcomes.
For a full year program, most private colleges charge fees between $10,000 and more than $20,000 in exchange for courses that promise to train students for the labour market. But numbers released this spring by Ontario show that about 71 per cent of career-college graduates from the colleges where students can receive provincial assistance found work, compared to about 83 per cent of graduates of publicly funded colleges.
"The school would tell us what chapters we have to read and the teacher would sit at their desk at the front of the room," said Arthur Gallant, a graduate of a paralegal program from CDI College in Hamilton, Ont. "We would take turns just reading from the textbooks … I'm waking up every morning just to take turns reading from a textbook?"
Some days, Mr. Gallant and several classmates go and observe trials at a nearby courthouse rather than attend class. They learned more in court, he said.
Provincial oversight authorities in Ontario and British Columbia have repeatedly raised alarms about whether more regulation is needed to ensure the quality of education at the institutions, including most recently in a 2015 report from British Columbia's ombudsperson. A report released by the Conference Board of Canada earlier this month said the colleges can provide valuable training but must address concerns about the quality and cost of programs.
The colleges argue they provide an option for older students, newcomers or workers retraining, all of whom are looking to receive a credential quickly.
"We are not dealing with the 18-year-old who is trying to find herself with support from the parents," said Serge Buy, the CEO of the National Association of Career Colleges. "We are dealing with people who have prior student debt … Someone who has children, someone who is unemployed or underemployed and is looking at changing their life," he said.
Many programs are also overseen by professional licensing bodies. The course Mr. Gallant attended is approved by the Law Society of Upper Canada, said Mike Lacroix, Ontario regional director for CDI College, which has multiple campuses in the province.
"The curriculum is standard … but the instructors at their discretion have a variety of presentations, techniques and resources to choose from," he said.
Private colleges do not receive direct public funding, but students at about a third of the institutions in Ontario are eligible for financial aid.
The province spent approximately $200-million in grants and loans annually to students of career colleges, about a fifth of the amount awarded to students at public colleges. Ontario is planning to expand financial aid, which will lead to more students at career colleges being eligible for grants and loans.
New Brunswick, which has announced a reform of financial aid that is similar to Ontario, has said it will exclude students at private colleges.
Having access to government financial aid made them expect higher standards, former students said.
Christina Mayer, a former student at Canadian Business College, was surprised by the amount of independent work she was expected to do in a Web design and digital marketing program. In many lectures, the teacher would show videos in class from a popular online learning provider, she said.
"I had been told I needed to be there from 9:00 to 2:00, so I assumed there was instruction every day," she said. "I later learned it was more of a self-study program. Why would I pay $16,000?"
In 2014, Ms. Mayer complained to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, seeking a refund of her fees, most of which she paid by taking out an OSAP loan. (Only 33 complaints about private colleges were received by Ontario's higher education ministry in 2014.)
Ms. Mayer was told that because she had completed much of the course, she could not get her money back.
The ministry also wrote in an e-mail to her that the course had been approved to deliver 1,100 of 1,300 hours through computer-based training and labs.
Private-college programs that are not regulated by a professional society are not overseen by government regulators. Instead, they hire an adult-education professional and a "subject-matter" expert, who submit their assessments to the government.
The "ministry believes that the process provides oversight for the thousands of programs that have been approved under the legislation," a government spokesperson said.
Mr. Gallant is now working in retail but is looking for a job as a paralegal, and would consider moving to Toronto to find a position.
"Do I believe it was worth the 15K?" he asked. "My licence is the most valuable piece of paper in my possession. I don't look at my diploma every day, but I look at my licence, knowing that I am a licensee of the Law Society."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly compared the general employment rate of publicly funded community colleges to the employment rate for private career colleges graduates in their field of study. In fact, the general employment rate six months after graduation is 83.4 per cent for public community colleges versus 71.2 per cent for private career colleges. In addition, the article said private colleges charge fees between $10,000 and more than $20,000 a year. There are some full year courses which charge less. This version has been corrected.