As the bachelor's degree loses its lustre, the college system has been prepping for its close-up. One of its biggest boosters: university graduates who are treating colleges and polytechnics as de facto finishing schools.
"Our biggest area of growth is post-university students," said James Knight, the president of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.
At Toronto's Humber College last fall, for instance, 31 per cent of the incoming students had a degree or some postsecondary studies. At the B.C. Institute of Technology, 20 per cent of incoming students hold undergraduate degrees; an additional 30 per cent have some postsecondary education but no degree or credential.
Among the post-university students is Christopher Carrique, whose liberal arts degree would have paved the way to a career a generation ago, as it did for his father, who immediately landed a job after taking a BA in economics.
"That certainly wasn't the case for me. I just didn't feel job ready," said Mr. Carrique, who majored in English and minored in economics at the University of British Columbia, then spent two years teaching in Japan.
He enrolled in a two-year marketing management program at the polytechnic BCIT, and graduates this month with a diploma and at least one job offer in his area of interest, the health and surgical equipment business. "My UBC experience was amazing. I got a good, broad education," he said. "But in terms of being employable, I thought I could improve myself."
Students and educators alike are realizing that what has worked for decades for tradesmen is now working for those who aspire to work in a knowledge economy.
"Humber is a proud trainer of apprentices - plumbers, electricians and carpenters and that's an important part of this mission," president John Davies said. "But we also, at the other end, have about 2,400 post-grad students who already have degrees and know those degrees aren't getting them directly into the work force."
At the same time, colleges and polytechnics are embarking on efforts to attract more high-school graduates by advertising and appealing to parents, building new facilities and offering degrees, all while selling the merits of a practical, skills-based education. Many of these institutions claim that depending on the year, 80 to 90 per cent of graduating students find employment in their field within six months.
"Colleges are developing a more vital profile in the Canadian landscape and are moving from being the second cousin to the universities to being peers in providing knowledge and training that is required by the work force," said Marilyn Luscombe, the president of New Brunswick Community College, adding that the key is "reaching back much earlier than Grade 12."
Many current college students will say non-university options just weren't on their radar in high school. Halifax native Elizabeth Roach hadn't considered a college because only a degree would open the door to teacher's college or a masters program. Once she realized Humber had started granting bachelor's degrees in music, Ms. Roach, now 23, decided to transfer. (Her tuition fees dropped from about $8,000 a year to about $5,000.)
Mr. Carrique heard about BCIT by word of mouth. "It was hearing about someone who went to university, then BCIT and they got a job out of it," he said. "And they did practical stuff and they loved it. That's how everybody I know found out about it."
Mr. Carrique said there is still a stigma attached to colleges.
Even so, more Canadians hold community college degrees, diplomas or certifications than university degrees (31 per cent versus 21 per cent) and contribute to Canada's spot at the top of the OECD pile when it comes to the number of citizens with postsecondary education (49 per cent in 2008).
Research suggests that in the coming years, college graduates will be in demand over university graduates by a ratio of 6 to 1. The reason: Demographics and a shifting economy. Aging baby boomers will be vacating jobs in droves in the coming years and the economy is increasingly becoming knowledge-based.
"Whether we like it or not, we have shifted from the model of 1920 to a different model that has education as increasingly more job related," said education consultant Rick Miner, who wrote a widely-circulated report called People Without Jobs, Jobs Without People last year.
College-granted BAs also allow students to change streams more easily from diploma programs to degree programs or vice-versa without losing credit. Similarly, colleges and universities are striking deals to recognize each other's course work.
Some experts say a mash-up of the university and college experiences could eventually lead to a kind of hybrid degree. Students could, say, spend two years reading Keats and Locke, reaping the benefits of a bachelor degree, then spend the next two years studying a job-related field.
Students such as BCIT's Mr. Carrique spend up to six or more years on their studies, so the hybrid model could drastically reduce the time people spend in post-secondary education - and reduce the amount of student debt, Mr. Miner said.
"If the system could work together, you could have given him or her that same educational experience, just as well, in four years."