Kathryn Jocsak got a science and psychology degree at university but something was missing.
"I have a university degree, but it's in science and psychology. I wanted to study business because I have always had an interest in numbers," says the 30-year-old Toronto resident.
"I didn't really use this interest in my undergrad; it was kind of a hobby of mine. I needed more tools."
Ms. Jocsak enrolled in an eight-month business program, with six classes a semester, at Centennial College, one of many full- and part-time programs offered at the school's campus in Toronto's Scarborough neighbourhood and at other colleges across Canada.
"Through this program I'm looking at becoming an investment broker and advisor. The beauty of this program is that you get all these tools so that you can do a bunch of different jobs in different sectors," she says.
Linda Franklin, president and chief executive officer of Colleges Ontario, says: "The great thing about college programs is that they give you the flexibility to start your career right away or use your credential as a springboard to more education and specialization."
It is not necessarily a question of one or the other when it comes to choosing between university and college – it is often a matter of doing both, she says.
Her organization, the umbrella group for Ontario's 24 colleges, has noted an increase of as much as 40 per cent between 2009 and 2014 of college students arriving for class with previous degrees. Colleges Ontario's research, released this spring, shows that 46 per cent of Ontario college students have either completed or enrolled in a previous postsecondary program.
"At colleges the focus tends to be a lot more intense," says Barry O'Brien, dean of the business school at Centennial.
One of the biggest differences between studying business at a college compared with an undergraduate university business degree or an MBA is that colleges enable students to focus on precise career goals, he says.
"You may take seven or eight courses [in a college business program] and the programs can be very focused on a particular field and very hands-on," he says.
There is also the practical aspect. "If you go back and look to the foundation of the community college system [in Ontario] you'll find that many of the programs are tied to particular industries," adds Mr. O'Brien. College courses tend to be fine-tuned more closely than university courses, which teach wider, more general skills.
For example, when the advisory council for Mr. O'Brien's course in corporate account management meets to review the program, "they might say that we should transition to a new piece of software. It's a more nimble, be-ready-to-work-now approach than university. That's how we frame the difference between the two systems.
"You'll come out of college with a really good understanding of a specific area of study, which can combine well with a university education," Mr. O'Brien says.
The tie-ins can be specific, right down to a particular company. Last year, for example, McDonald's Canada entered a partnership with Colleges Ontario that enables its management trainees to receive the first year of credits toward a business diploma at any of the province's colleges.
McDonald's management trainees still have to take courses at the company's head office or at the company's Hamburger University, but by recognizing credits, the college partnership is worth up to about $4,500 in tuition savings.
In its 2017 survey of community colleges, Colleges Ontario lists 16 types of business programs available across the province. They range from accounting and finance to specialties such as aviation management, hospitality, human resources and industrial relations, small business and travel and tourism.
Ms. Jocsak says that in her own program, "there's much more applied work, and you can move directly toward your designation" – in her case, to be certified as a financial planner or advisor.
She says she gets the best of both worlds – practical programming while still getting to mingle with "like-minded individuals" who learned about the wider world in university or the working world and have now come to school to focus on particular goals.
"It's a common path," and it's one that makes sense for students like Ms. Jocsak, says Mr. O'Brien. The insights she learned studying psychology at university will come in handy when she eventually encounters customers and clients in the financial world who come with emotion-laden questions that require hard-and-fast financial decisions.
"In my own case, I graduated with a history degree," Mr. O'Brien says. "There are a whole bunch of skills someone like me can get from a college in a relatively short time."
"Our graduates find rewarding positions in a wide range of careers, from finance and accounting to marketing and international business administration. A number of today's most influential executives are graduates of the business programs at Ontario's colleges," Ms. Franklin says.