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An ongoing education: Why university graduates are increasingly enrolling in college programs

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It's long been believed that a university education is the best means of connecting students to their chosen fields, giving them a competitive edge over other applicants in the job market. However, there's a new trend growing in Ontario that’s turning this misconception on its head.

Today's university graduates are returning to school, but not necessarily for their Master's --many are now going to college, enrolling in programs they believe will get them closer to the jobs they're seeking.

Linda Franklin is the President and CEO of Colleges Ontario, an advocacy group that represents the province's 24 colleges of applied arts and technology. She says this latest surge in enrollment is part of a shift in postsecondary education that's been occurring for years.

"The trend started a while ago, but it's really has taken an increased turn since the recession," she says. "I think particularly in this downturn, people's attitudes really started to change. Not just students, but parents about colleges."

Franklin says there's been a 40 per cent increase in college students with university degrees in the last five years --and she expects that number to grow. Already, 15 per cent of all college students have university-level degrees. By her estimate, much of the change comes down to the need for jobs.

"When we've polled parents in the past, they would say to us 'I know that colleges are great routes to jobs, that skilled trades are really good job prospects, but my kid's going to university. Everybody else’s kids should look at college,'" she says. "And over the course of the recession, as parents became fearful about young people’s chances of success in the labour market, and the students became more concerned about it, when we've polled people, we’ve started to hear things like 'the purpose of postsecondary education is to get a good job. The mark of success in postsecondary is getting a pathway to a good career.'"

It’s not just any college education these graduates are interested in. They're looking specifically for an opening to a career, and colleges are quick to meet demand with specially-designed one-year programs called graduate certificates.

"We're seeing a huge upsurge, a huge interest in graduate certificates," says Franklin. "They're almost like a Master's program, but applied. So, a year of education that adds onto your theoretical education with specific skills. That has really been booming these last few years."

Though some might be quick to point to oft-belittled liberal arts graduates as the primary drivers of the trend, Franklin says it's actually a fairly even mix of degree-holding graduates that enroll in Ontario’s colleges. There's relative diversity in the programs they're applying for, too. Marketing, journalism, biotechnology and engineering technology are just a few popular examples.

Fundamentally, the largest factor in a university graduate's decision to go to college isn't necessarily their degree, but the type of knowledge they received in university. Traditionally, Canadian universities have offered theoretical learning about particular areas and interests, while college programs have offered applied learning directed toward a specific career goal. However, this too is changing.

Universities are responding to the need for more experiential learning by bolstering co-op and internship programs. Universities Canada, the advocacy group representing 97 Canadian universities, says 55 per cent of undergraduates benefit from experiential learning --that is, co-op placements, internships, and service learning. The association says growth in co-op programs has jumped by 25 per cent in recent years, growing from 53,000 students in 2006 to 65,000 students in 2013.

If the association is to be believed, it's making a difference in the job market. According to a 2014 Universities Canada survey, 80 per cent of employers said co-op and internship opportunities provided a source of new talent and potential future employees.

However, the decision to return to college isn't necessarily a competition between the two types of postsecondary institution. It’s also a product of employers demanding more from their new hires. "When we look at employers and we survey them, they say they really like the mix of theoretical and applied education," says Franklin. She says a college degree can also help when employers don't want to invest in training personnel, instead preferring candidates to "hit the ground running."

Employers are looking for the best of both worlds, and both universities and colleges are adapting to meet the new demand. But while colleges, universities and employers are all moving to embrace the change, there is one group hit especially hard --the students themselves, who are now faced with the possibility of incurring the cost of additional schooling to achieve their career goals.

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