Contextualizing Canadian & American Post Secondary Education

I’m really excited to be attending ACPA in Montreal in just a few days. It’s the first time that ACPA will be held internationally, and for me, it represents two worlds colliding. In my last semester of grad school in Ohio, I had to create a 5-year professional development plan. Number one on that list was “Study the Canadian Higher Education system”. That might seem weird since I am a Canadian and I attended my undergrad here, but during my postgraduate work I got an in depth picture of the evolution of American higher education. That history underpinned most of the trends, climates, and issues that I was beginning to understand as a student affairs professional. Just before graduation, I started to realize I was about to re-enter a system of education about which I had little context. So learning about our educational history was a big priority for me.

Our history tells us who we are, and it can help us better understand and solve today’s problems. We can compare present-day institutions, students, and local communities, but that won’t give us a full picture. Superficially, we see more affordable education in Canada with provincially administered systems rather than a national approach. We have a vast number of public institutions (around 235) and very few private (somewhere around 65). Almost all of our institutions are secular. All this is very different from our American neighbours where there is a huge amount of diversity in institutional size, public vs. private schools, and a wide range of tuition fees that are exclusionary at the high end.

In this great blog post by #RyersonSA’s own Wincy Li, and U of T’s Jeff Burrows, we get a comprehensive breakdown of the most significant differences between the Canadian and US higher education scene. According to them, Canadian higher ed differs according to the following points:

  • There Is No Canadian Higher Education System, Technically
  • Predominance of Public Institutions
  • The Access Mandate of Canadian Universities and Colleges
  • Structures of Student Affairs and Services
  • Growing Trend of Professionalization in Student Affairs and Services
  • Unionization of Staff
  • Admissions and Transfer
  • Influence of Student Unions
  • Prevalence of Varsity Sport

It’s become apparent that despite being next door neighbours, there are a lot of differences between us; some glaring and others more nuanced. I’ve always been curious about why we’re so different, and that number one point on my PD plan has been burning a hole in my to do list for years. So, recently, I started reading about our respective histories and some interesting stories began to unfold that can account for our individuality.

National vs. Provincial System

This one can be traced back to how Canada and the US formed as countries. Whereas the US fought a revolution and were united as a country following their struggle for independence, Canada was formed piecemeal after decades of politicking between French and British colonies. Confederation started with just 4 provinces in 1867 (Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Ontario) and we kept adding provinces and territories until 1999 (Nunavut). Each of the colonies had existing systems of higher education that differed from each other, and therefore it was prudent to allow educational jurisdiction to remain with the provincial governments. The result is the decentralized system of higher education we know today. The federal government did dip its toe into the pool of education, however, with the creation of the Royal Military College formed in 1876, which remains the only federally administered post-secondary institution.

Public vs. Private Ratio

Both in the US and in Canada, the first institutions of higher education were privately operated—Harvard in the US (formed in 1636) and the Laval University in Canada (formed in 1663 and known as the Séminaire de Québec). From there, both countries eventually housed a diverse number of publicly and privately administered institutions. In the US, the sanctity of private universities was threatened with the landmark case of Dartmouth College v Woodward in 1819. Essentially, this case paved the way for private charters in the US after the New Hampshire  legislature attempted to force Dartmouth to become a public institution and lost based on the Contract Clause in the US Constitution.

I read this paper by U of T’s Dr. Glen Jones which talks about the development of higher education in Canada. In it, he explains that the evolution away from private institutions was massively influenced by WWII and the return of thousands of veterans who had been guaranteed higher education opportunities. This influx resulted in a 42% increase in enrollment between 1945–1946 in a total increase of 70% from 1941–1951. The strain on higher education had institutions clamoring for support from federal & provincial governments. Provincial governments eventually responded by providing significant support for the expansion of higher education across the country, with subsidies from the federal government. This decision also explains why Canada’s institutions are so much larger on average than in the US. We could react quicker to this increase in demand by throwing resources at existing schools, rather than building new ones. And once higher ed had opened its doors to veterans, it paved the way for other working class citizens to demand access as well, so enrollment continued to increase. Higher education had become an extremely significant social issue, requiring public financial support as a main source of funding. This model of increasing funds lasted for roughly two decades and saw most of Canada’s private and denominational institutions transition to public, secular models in order to access full resources from provincial governments.

Greek Life

In the US, the first fraternity formed in 1776 (Phi Beta Kappa) and was followed by others once enough interest had built up at institutions around the US. They originally formed to provide space for students to debate freely about events and literature outside of strict curriculums, and secrecy was a hallmark since university administrators were not supportive. The biggest turning point in the history of Greek organizations was the creation of chapter houses where students who were part of the fraternity would live together. They were provided by alumni members in late 19th century once enough had graduated and they required formations of alumni boards who helped to manage building logistics. This was also the impetus for pledging since students had to “rush” to get freshman to fill the houses to support the financial burden of running them. These houses became centres for socializing, not just for their own members, but the wider campus. It is how these groups became so influential within student culture.

In Canada, Dr. Paul Axelrod of York University writes that Canadian Greek letter organizations formed as chapters of American fraternities in the late 19th century. They became popular in the 1920s and 30s, but the nature of fraternities became out of fashion in the 1960s when student culture became opposed to anything perceived as elitist. Some post-secondary administrators took this opportunity to disavow them as campus groups, in many cases due to equity concerns. In recent years, the popularity of greek organizations has resurfaced, as students search for connection in large institutions where they feel anonymous, however, policies at some institutions continue to block their access to campus.

US Community Colleges vs Canadian Colleges

In the US, 2 year educational institutions harken back to teacher training colleges, known as Normal Schools. These evolved to incorporate a focus on vocational training and to provide a direct entry path to university, which is why they used to be referred to as Junior Colleges. These 2 year institutions were vital in providing access to education for those who might not be able to afford an entire 4 year degree, and added flexibility to the educational landscape. Now students could enroll for 2 years and they had the option of then moving into the workforce, completing an additional 2 years at the college, or transferring to another university to complete a degree. They have a policy of open admission, that is, any student who has completed a high school diploma or GED can attend without the need for standardized testing.

1960s Canada saw multiple provincial task forces, created to make recommendations about the future development of higher education. Most of them included the development of non-university higher education options that would address the need for skills and vocational training required in the job market, as well as increasing access to education. One exception to this pattern was the province of Quebec, who opted to create a unique system of transition from secondary to post-secondary education with the creation of the CÉGEP as explained in this ACPA 2016 article by Alexandre Beaupré-Lavallée. Some other provinces modelled their new vocational institutions after the US junior colleges, but most made creating job-ready students a key focus. As of 2007, only 34% of students enrolling in college in Ontario were coming directly from high school, instead having first entered the labour market, or attended a previous post-secondary institution. Indeed, colleges have been referred to as a kind of “finishing school” for university degree-holders who are in need of practical experience necessary to get hired, and in Ontario, enrollment of students with previous degrees has increased by 40% over the last 5 years.

(Colleges have, unfortunately, gotten a reputation as a less prestigious educational option in certain provinces, in part due to secondary school curriculums that used to, or continue to, stream students into courses that are accepted at all PSE options versus less rigorous ones acceptable only at colleges.)

Access to Education

There is a vast spectrum of affordability in the US landscape of higher education. This can be somewhat attributed to the diversity of options from public community colleges to elite, ivy league private institutions. I actually believe that the philosophy of our guiding documents can explain more about the different approaches our countries have taken regarding access to education. In the US Bill of Rights, the emphasis on individual liberty can be contrasted with the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms that enshrines individual rights, but also sets out criteria for situations where those rights can be revoked (i.e.: free speech vs. hate speech). In Canada, the mandate to provide equality for all in access to education has meant that tuition has remained fairly consistent and lower than in the US. Whereas the American strategy to increase accessibility has been to provide education at a variety costs. The focus on individual liberty emphasized in the US Constitution has meant that government has less support for creating social policy benefiting all citizens, however, individual students have access to a much larger pool of financial aid than Canadians.

The context I’ve received from my reading is invaluable. Based on my new knowledge I can now look at issues that exist today and understand how a variety of solutions might impact the status quo,  because I understand more about why we are the way we are. But, on its own, context can’t present the right solutions. To do that, we have to continue to develop our skills in collaboration, communication, and ingenuity, knowing that if we constantly focus on our differences, we’re missing opportunities to unite in our sameness. This is why I’m so excited to see us all come together at #ACPA16; to witness new thinking spark new solutions and stoke the fires of innovation.