Diversity in the US and Canadian university system

February 15, 2006, [MD]

While researching what would end up being a poorly written essay on modernization theory and Laos (don’t ask), I came across the Journal of Higher Education, a topic that interests me verily, and I read a few articles. One that stood out was a comparison between the US and Canadian university systems in terms of stratification and competition between undergraduate students. (The article was Davis, S. & Hammack, F. M. (2005). The Channeling of Student Competition in Higher Education: Comparing Canada and the U.S. Journal of Higher Education, 76, 1, pp. 89-106. You can probably get it online through your university library, if you have one).

They start by stating that since enrollment in post-secondary education has risen dramatically in the last few years (around 60% of secondary school leavers in both countries visit some sort of post-secondary institution), the competition among undergraduates to attend the most prestigious program/institution has grown, but it manifests itself differently in the two countries. In the US, you have several thousand institutions, private and public, small and large; and there is a very clear hierarchy of the best schools, which is quite stable. If you compare today’s top-ten list with the one a hundred years ago, you will find only one change. These schools often charge very high tuition fees, but give grants and scholarships to attract the best students. Since it would be incongruent to have a very weak medical school at for example Harvard, these institutions try to maintain top quality across the board, and they do not charge significantly more or less for the different programs.

On the other hand you have Canada, with schools almost all public, and without clear perception of better and worse universities, at least for undergraduate. Partly because most students go to the closest university (which is true; at UofT we are constantly told about how excellent our university is, but most of the students I know grew up in Scarborough, not many people who travelled from BC or the Prairies to go to school here). The tuition fees across institutions is also quite similar, and regulated. However, the institutions are permitted to charge more (often quite a lot more) for certain programs, such as computer science, management and engineering. This has led these institutions to become highly sought after. The difference with the US is thus that in the US, which institution you attended is paramount, whereas in Canada, it’s which program you graduated from. In fact, people attending good institutions that fail to enroll in their program of choice might drop-out, and choose to do the same program in community college instead, something one would not see very often in the US.

Finally, they posit that because most of the best students from Canada go on to British and US elite institutions, this has functioned as a “safety valve” to the demand of setting up more elite institutions in Canada.

This whole discussion was valuable to me, because in Norway we also have universities that are very roughly “equal”; all funded 100% by the state (no tuition money), very centrally run, and if you want to study history it depends more on which city you want to live in. And although we don’t differentiate the tuition fee, if you want to study history as an undergraduate you are almost guaranteed admittance, but if you want to study journalism, law or medicine, it’s incredibly hard.

Stian\ (picture by Roobee)

Stian Håklev February 15, 2006 Toronto, Canada
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