Education

Customizing a degree

British Columbia offers a range of accessible choices

CHRIS WOOD April 20 1998
Education

Customizing a degree

British Columbia offers a range of accessible choices

CHRIS WOOD April 20 1998

Customizing a degree

Education

British Columbia offers a range of accessible choices

CHRIS WOOD

When Andrea Laliberté first walked into a classroom at University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops, 250 km northeast of Vancouver, in the fall of 1993, she was hardly the typical undergrad. She was 34, for one thing. And for the past decade she had spent more time training horses and midwifing bovine births on cattle ranches than she had hitting the books. But after abandoning an incomplete agriculture degree in her native Germany in 1984 to marry and move to her husband’s native Canada, Laliberté was ready to expand her horizons. “I wanted to go back to school,” she recalls, “but I didn’t want to travel to Vancouver”—a necessity if she wanted to attend either of the two biggest B.C. universities (the two others are even more distant, in Victoria and Prince George). So Laliberté enrolled instead at her local community college.

She graduated a year ago with a bachelor of science degree in natural resources. It cost about half what universities charge for a similar degree. And she was able to live at home. As a bonus, Cariboo even gave Laliberté credit for her studies in Germany.

Cheaper. Closer to home.

More accessible. More accommodating. They are among the reasons why half the people pursuing a bachelor-level degree in British Columbia no longer study at a traditional university. Instead, they take adParte: low-cost alternative vantage of a system of credit-

transfers among community colleges, universities and “university colleges”—hybrid degree-granting institutions with their roots in vocational and technical training—to chart their own, individual courses towards a degree. The system is not new: it dates back 30 years. But increasingly, it is gaining attention from the rest of the country. Driven by concern over shrinking access to higher education and the mounting debt burden borne by recent graduates, educators in other provinces are looking more closely at British Columbia’s answer to a widening dilemma: how to deliver more degrees to more graduates, for less money.

To follow British Columbia’s lead, however, the rest of the country would need to abandon a time-honored division in

higher education. Apart from Alberta, which allows a more limited form of credit-transfer, most other provinces preserve a clear distinction between degree-granting universities and community colleges, which teach vocational and technical skills. A striking exception is the University College of Cape Breton, which offers what it calls “blended” programs to about half its 3,600 students: graduates receive an academic degree as well as a diploma certifying that they have acquired skills in a related field—a degree in English literature, for example, in parallel with a diploma in stage lighting.

Under pressure from cashstrapped students, the distinction is beginning to break down elsewhere as well. In February, academic administrators from across Ontario met in Ottawa to assess a handful of new partnerships between colleges and universities that are just beginning to spring up. Among them: Nipissing University and North Bay’s Canadore College collaborating to offer a bachelor’s degree in applied technology. In another example, the University of Windsor is accepting community college commerce diplomas for advanced credit in business studies. The newest proposal sees McMaster University in Hamilton sharing a health sciences program with Mohawk College in the same building. Still, none of those innovations goes as far as British g Columbia has. “British Columbia,” says Simon § Fraser University vice-president David Gagan, I who has spent much of his career in Ontario and ° Manitoba, “is light-years ahead in terms of intey gration of the college and university systems.”

I Small wonder: it was planned that way. When ë the B.C. government created the province’s first I community colleges in the 1960s, a central goal to traditional universities was to make it easier for students from remote Interior and coastal communities to get to one of the province’s then-three universities—all of them in the extreme lower left of the B.C. map. From the start, governments pushed colleges and universities to agree on common academic standards so that students could study at colleges for credit towards a university degree. Now, every month, the B.C. Council on Admissions and Transfer, which oversees the process, updates an Internet guide to an estimated 40,000 combinations of college courses and university transfer credits. Using it, says council executive-director Frank Gelin, “a student will know in advance what credit he will get for any course offered at Capilano College, say, at any of the B.C. universities.”

The system has met one goal. Between one-third and one-half of the students attending the province’s 11 community and five university colleges are now taking degree-track courses—as many as 50,000 people last year, by some estimates. What is more, notes Gelin, about 50 per cent of the stu-

dents entering B.C. universities are arriving from college with up to half their course work for a four-year degree already complete. The flexible system particularly benefits mature students like Laliberté, who may return part-time to the classroom while maintaining work and family priorities. The average age of students in the college system: 32.

To its established credit-transfer system, British Columbia began to add a new refinement a decade ago—one that is only now taking full effect. In 1989, five community colleges received the designation “university college,” and with it the right to offer four-year degree programs in partnership with existing universities. Teaching happened at the colleges; degrees bore the mentor university’s name. Now, that too has begun to change. Armed with new powers granted in 1995, university colleges are phasing out such partnerships in favor of degrees bearing their own name. Some are familiar: bachelors of arts and bachelors of science. Others are novel. This June, University College of the Fraser Valley (where the political economy of Latin America shares the calendar with practical milking) will grant its first bachelor of business administration degree in aviation. Among the new scrolls that Kwantlen University College in Surrey is seeking to offer are degrees in geography and fashion and design. Says vice-president of education Skip Triplett, “We expect to add a couple of degrees a year for some time.”

The result is a range of relatively low-cost educational choices beyond what is available in other provinces. Maura Parte, chairman of the 90,000-member B.C. wing of the Canadian Federation of Students, knows the advantages firsthand. Now 26, Parte spent the first few years after high school in a string of go-nowhere retail and waitressing jobs, before she returned to classes in 1994 at Victoria’s Camosun College. In 1996, she transferred to the University of Victoria and entered third-year history. At college, argues Parte, “you’re essentially receiving the same education” as in firstand second-year university. But the price “is almost half.” The average tuition for a degree-track program at a B.C. college last year

was $1,350. At a university, it was $2,282.

Price, admittedly, is only part of the comparison. University administrators point to a greater selection of courses and resources, to say nothing of extracurricular activities, to justify the higher fees. “Tuition is a factor,” concedes University of British Columbia registrar Richard Spencer. “I doubt it’s the determining factor.” In any case, Spencer adds, the popularity of colleges has hardly left universities scrambling to fill places. Like Simon Fraser and Victoria, UBC annually turns away far more applicants than it accepts.

Of course, higher university tuitions also buy something else: brand recognition in the workplace. In a quirk of timing, Greg Madsen, 21, will receive a B.Sc. in Simon Fraser’s name when he graduates in biology this June—even though he has studied for four years at Fraser Valley. But it will be one of the last such degrees awarded. After 2000, Fraser Valley will grant B.Sc.s in its own name. “The only reason I stayed here was because it was still a Simon Fraser degree.” Madsen says. “I saved money going here. I think I got better teachers. I learned more than I would have at a big university.” But still, he adds, if you go for a job they want to see the insignia of a university on the diploma.

The same concern bothered Cindy Meays. After finishing high school in British Columbia, she spent a year tending her grandparents’ Saskatchewan farm before returning to college to study general science. In 1997, she was among the first recipients of a B.Sc. in natural resources from Cariboo. “It’s a bit unknown,” Meays says about the institution. “I was concerned.” Not any more. Meays is now enrolled, along with Laliberté, in a master’s program in rangeland management at Oregon State University at Corvallis, 150 km south of Portland. “I think we’re well prepared,” says Meays. “Our program was fairly intensive, so is this.” In fact, research by the B.C. Council on Admissions and Transfer confirmed that students who begin their undergraduate years at a community college and complete it at university, do neither better nor worse than those who go directly to university. “It is literally no disadvantage to a student whatsoever,” says UBC’s Spencer, “to do their first and second year of a program at a college.”

There are tradeoffs, mind you. “I know somebody at Simon Fraser who’s dissecting a monkey right now,” bemoans Madsen. liWe have to make do with models.” But Laliberté, pursuing her master’s in Oregon, says: “I don’t feel any lack of education.” And talking with a reporter in a small common room at Fraser Valley, biology major Steve Keim offers a middle view: “The price, for what you can get, I think it is the best.” Good enough, certainly, to attract growing interest from provinces where the high cost of a traditional university education is forcing more Canadians to forgo the experience entirely.

With D’ARCYJENISH in Toronto