Not all degrees are created equal

Many colleges are now offering degrees. But not all universities recognize them

Imagine that after four years of all-nighters, dry textbooks, and verbose lectures, you discover that the bachelor’s degree you have worked hard to complete is not, in fact, a bachelor’s degree. At least not according to some universities. Dave Cryderman found himself in this situation when he received rejection emails from the University of Toronto, Lakehead University, the University of Ottawa, the University of Western Ontario and Nipissing University, shortly before graduating from Capilano College in North Vancouver with a bachelor’s degree in music. He was told that to be considered for entrance into teachers’ college, he first needed a degree from a university. “They wouldn’t even open my application,” Cryderman said. “They wouldn’t even consider my grades for an average.” Newly married, he was eager to join his wife in Ontario, finish his training and become a high school music teacher. Two years later, he still hasn’t gone to teachers’ college.

Options for post-secondary study have dramatically increased in recent years, as many provinces have encouraged eager colleges to get into the business of offering university-level education, including bachelor’s degrees. Around 40 colleges across Canada are now offering their own degrees. In British Columbia alone, 3,453 bachelor’s degrees were granted by colleges in the 2005-06 academic year. But the increasingly diverse education market has schools — and students — all over Canada confused about what a bachelor’s degree really is. As Dave Cryderman discovered, just because your institution awards you a degree doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will recognize it as such.

When contemplating education options, it’s important to understand how your degree will be viewed after graduation. Canada has no national accreditation body. Each province has its own system for awarding the right to grant degrees, as well as separate systems for private institutions. This has led to interprovincial inconsistencies, and confusion for students. In B.C. and Alberta, colleges have long been feeders to universities, providing students with university-level courses that can be transferred toward a degree. B.C. and Alberta universities recognize college degrees authorized by the provinces in most cases. The B.C. Council on Admissions and Transfer estimates that 40 per cent of students entering B.C. universities transfer from a college, institute or university college. In Ontario, in contrast, colleges have traditionally been part of a system that is separate from universities, focused on applied programs that prepare students for the workforce. The result is that many Ontario universities do not consider colleges degree-granting institutions and do not recognize their degrees.

And yet the number of public degree-granting schools in B.C. has grown to 14, from only four in 1989. Dr. Greg Lee, president of Capilano College, believes that these new college degrees are an important addition to the post-secondary market. “Some students learn better in an applied environment with smaller classes.” Capilano grants bachelor’s degrees in jazz studies, music therapy, business administration, and tourism management. Although it has been offering degrees for over 15 years in partnership with the British Columbia Open Learning Institute(now called Thompson Rivers University), graduates like Cryderman only began to have problems with degree recognition when Capilano gained independent degree-granting status in 2003. “They are essentially the same degrees as before,” says Lee. “The whole thing is bizarre.”

However, Jo-Anne Brady, registrar of Queen’s University, says that students coming from colleges are not necessarily prepared to pursue further education. She explains that in Queen’s experience, students who have not studied in a university environment do not necessarily have the background needed for acceptance into postgraduate studies. “We don’t want to admit students who won’t be successful. That’s not fair to the student.”

Lee says that this attitude amounts to “academic snobbery.” He argues that these universities consider applied knowledge inferior. “All we ask is that we don’t get turned away by virtue of a piece of paper at a registrar’s office saying that we’re not a member of some organization.”

The organization that Lee is referring to is the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada(AUCC), an advocacy organization that represents 91 public and private not-for-profit universities. In the absence of a national accreditation body, many registrars use AUCC membership as de facto accreditation. That’s the case at Queen’s: applicants for postgraduate study normally must have a degree from an AUCC member.

Colleges such as Capilano, however, are not eligible for AUCC membership. AUCC requires that the majority of a member’s programs be at a university level, and that academic staff engage in peer-reviewed research. Capilano, like many other degree-granting colleges, does not meet those requirements. This puts these colleges in an odd position: their provincial governments say that they are qualified to grant a bachelor’s degree; the national lobbying group for universities says that they are not. There’s no referee to break the impasse.

In essence, Cryderman was denied admission to teachers’ college because Capilano College is not an AUCC member, not because of his individual merits. Similar cases have been reported at Mount Royal College and Kwantlen University College. “As a customer,” says Cryderman, “I bought a defective product.” Lee responds: “We just didn’t anticipate that it would be a problem.” Yet two years after the Cryderman case, a search of Capilano’s website and calendar finds no mention of the hurdles students choosing a Capilano degree may encounter if they want to go on to postgraduate study.

“Provinces began granting these degrees without consideration of how they would be recognized,” said Dave Marshall, president of Mount Royal College in Calgary. He says it’s no surprise that universities are hesitant to accept every credential.

Mount Royal College is a degree-granting college that offers 13 of its own applied degrees. But Marshall does not expect his institution’s degrees to be accepted as university-level bachelor’s degrees and advises his students as such. Mount Royal is addressing the problem by transitioning into a full-fledged university “to ensure that the outcome that the student achieves is indeed a university-level credential,” says Marshall.

While sympathetic to Capilano College’s situation, Marshall is not sympathetic to its argument. “Just because it is called a baccalaureate, it shouldn’t automatically be accepted everywhere.” He stresses that there are many different types of degrees with different strengths and weaknesses; some prepare students for a career and others for further study. “Institutions that are offering different types of degrees and aren’t universities need to ensure that their students understand — right or wrong — how the degree will be seen when the student graduates,” he advised. “Universities also have to recognize that there are different degrees and some of them will, in fact, hold significant value for students moving on in education and professional school, even if they aren’t an AUCC member.”

Marshall questions whether the creation of a national accreditation body would necessarily solve the problem. “There is already an accepted set of standards as to what a university is. All AUCC does is say: if you have these things, you are a university, if not, you aren’t. Would an accreditation body change those standards? Maybe an accreditation body would tell Capilano that it can’t grant baccalaureate degrees. You have to be careful what you wish for.”

Lee, on the other hand, is taking a different route. Capilano College is pursuing American degree-granting accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities — a process expected to take four years. “The fact that this should be necessary is a national disgrace,” he says.

Although Queen’s University’s admission policy is under review, registrar Brady does not think there is a problem to be fixed. “There is nothing to be solved. It is a continuing evolution that isn’t going to go away and shouldn’t. We should always be evaluating how postsecondary degrees serve our society.”

What is clear is that students need to do their homework when selecting a school. “I look at 17-year-olds trying to choose postsecondary destinations, not knowing what they want to do down the road,” Brady reflected. “But they need to think about what they want to do after their first postsecondary degree.”

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