Postsecondary Options in Canada

February 11, 2020

Canada is a land of opportunities, and that is very clear from the range of world standard postsecondary options in Canada. In fact, 55% of Canadian adults have completed postsecondary education, which is the largest percentage in the entire world. Sold? Let’s dive into your 3 postsecondary options in Canada.

Did you miss my first post on the basics of the Canadian Education System? Check it out here.


First off, it’s vital to clarify that university and college are two distinct types of postsecondary institutions in Canada. This is unlike in the United States, where the two words are synonyms for what Canadians call “university.”

Canadian universities offer excellent education, with both the University of Toronto and McGill ranking among the best in the world. Universities generally award a 4-year undergraduate Bachelor’s degree.

Woman reading book in a library

University degrees are helpful for students who have a passion for a subject like chemistry or political science. Bachelor’s degree are also required for most white-collar jobs. In addition, there are some very competitive university-only programs that involve both a high level of theory and practice. These include engineering, medicine, and dentistry. These degrees may require Master’s degrees and doctorates. A prior Bachelor’s degree is an admission requirement for those levels of education.

How do universities work?

Many Canadian universities follow a major/minor model. For example, within my Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto, I completed a major in European Studies and a double minor in History and Canadian Studies. To graduate, I had to fulfill the requirements of my major (certain courses, certain grade minimums, etc.) which really defines my area of study. This system is special in that you can change your major(s) and minor(s) throughout university, creating a final degree that is unique to you and your areas of interest. I really valued this flexibility and customization as it opened my eyes to so many more viewpoints and areas of knowledge than I’d ever seen before, including in the sciences.

Most Canadian universities are semi-private institutions, with only lower tier ones being completely private. There are no completely public universities in Canada, which means that students must always pay tuition fees set by their individual school and chosen program at that school. Many universities, private foundations, and provincial/territorial governments offer scholarships and grants based on financial need, academic and social achievements, and contests. Even more commonly, governments and banks supply student loans. (Banks sometimes offer student lines of credit instead which then transform upon graduation into a loan with a repayment plan.)


Woman sitting with a group of other students

In Canada, colleges are an important option for career-focused students who will need concrete skills to thrive in their area of work. They tend to be shorter programs, typically ranging from 1.5 years up to 4 years if you transition to a Bachelor’s through an affiliated university by the end of your studies. Aside from that exception which you can read an example of through Seneca College, colleges award diplomas instead of degrees.

Should you go to college?

In contrast with universities, colleges and the programs they offer are geared towards preparing students for employment. They are ideal for students who know that they wish to pursue a career that is taught in a college environment. These include nursing, aviation, hospitality operations, and much more. Sometimes colleges offer a more practical version of a program also offered by universities, such as journalism. In these cases, students need to weigh the pros and cons of each program’s components and employment support, plus their entrance requirements and financial tuition.

Speaking of tuition, colleges are typically less expensive than universities.  In addition to yearly tuition being less expensive, college programs tend to be shorter. This can save students huge money as well. The exception to this rule is that some very high stakes professions require expensive teaching methods, like pilot training. These programs are necessarily associated with higher tuition rates and more intense, if not years-long, periods of study.

People piloting an aircraft

While colleges can be key to developing skills and finding employment in a particular job, it’s important for students considering college to be fairly clear on what their end goal is because they do not offer the level of flexibility that comes with university. When you enter a college program, your course outline is generally set for you. You get very few electives depending on your school. Another important consideration is that many job postings in Canada will require a university education. That makes it critical to research first whether university or college is better for your sector. Finally, if your grades aren’t high enough for university admission, consider applying to college for postsecondary as many programs have less stringent requirements.

NOTE: College after University

As more and more Canadians earn Bachelor’s degrees, a way to stand out to potential employers is to go to college after university in order to learn skills for the job market. Your options include completing a regular diploma program, or attending a specialized “postgraduate diploma” that can only be accessed by university graduates. Postgraduate certificates are generally one-year programs aimed at building a students’ practical skills in their sector of work and connecting students to potential employers via projects and internships.

Trade Schools: The Overlooked Postsecondary Option

Man welding metal.You’ll find when researching postsecondary options in Canada that there can be some overlap between programs offered by colleges and vocational schools. Some large colleges will have a section teaching skilled trades, and sometimes vocational or “trade” schools are entirely separate institutions. Generally speaking, vocational school is the postsecondary institution where you can learn a skilled trade.

The trades include plumbing, electrical work, hairdressing, welding, and more. These are often challenging, hands-on jobs that are in high demand because they keep our cities and homes running smoothly. In return, working in the trades offers serious financial returns. Many vocational school graduates eventually succeed in creating their own businesses. Trades education is generally less expensive than university programs as well. This may be due to lower tuition rates, or a shorter number of years in training. Postsecondary programs for skilled trades are actively seeking more students, and especially higher numbers of women.

Woman in graduation gown walking away

Let’s sum up your postsecondary options

What do you think? Ready to study in Canada? I hope this article clarified the 3 postsecondary options this country has to offer! Do your research and reach out to interesting postsecondary options with your questions. These schools are always happy to help and invite you for an on-campus tour. Postsecondary school is a major investment of time and money. Put in the effort up front to make the best decision you can.

Have any questions about the postsecondary education system in Canada? What was YOUR experience? Let me know in the comments and let’s connect!

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About the Author

Emma Givens

Emma Givens is the Founder and CEO of EG: Content & Copy. She’s a brand messaging strategist, copywriter and writing coach with 10+ years of experience. She specializes in serving premium SMBs (Small and Medium-sized Businesses).



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