Choosing a Canadian Community College

Choosing your community college is a big decision-perhaps the biggest choice you've had to face so far. While you should choose carefully, the decision doesn't need to be overwhelming, especially if you break it down into smaller categories to help guide you, like the following:

  • Credentials/Degrees Offered

  • Programs Offered

  • Articulation and Transfer

  • Location

  • Size and Culture

  • Cost and Housing Options

  • Quality/ Accreditation

  • Entry Requirements

  • Extracurricular Activities and Student Support

  • Your Gut Feeling

Credentials/Degrees Offered
Some people know right away what they want to do as a career, while others don't know what they want to do but know what they enjoy studying or are good at. Both of these senses of yourself can help decide the kind of education and the type of credential you might want to pursue--which, in turn, can influence your choice of a community college. For example, having an idea of your career goals-even just knowing the type of degree your potential occupation will require-may aid in narrowing down your choices. Likewise, knowing what subjects interest you will narrow down which kinds of credentials are available in that area of study. As well, knowing how much time you want (or don't want) to spend in school can also help you make up your mind, since different credentials of different lengths are offered by different schools. Longer programs are investments of not only more time but also of more money.

The key to making choices is knowledge. So here is a brief introduction to the kinds of credentials offered at Canada's community colleges.

  • Bachelor's degree: A 3- or 4-year undergraduate degree. These degrees are not just limited to universities; some community colleges in Canada do offer bachelor's degrees, generally in more applied subjects--for example, in Design rather than Arts. At the community college level, these degrees still give you broad academic knowledge of a particular area of study along with "elective" courses, but tend to focus more on skills and vocational training than university bachelor's degrees.

  • Applied degree: Similar to a bachelor's degree, an applied degree is usually a 4-year program that combines theory and analytical skills. However, applied degrees are more career-focused with a stronger emphasis on practical applications and training. These programs are usually developed in conjunction with industry employers, and programs often include a semester of work experience. Some examples are Bachelor of Applied Arts, and Bachelor of Applied Technology.

  • Associate's degree: A 2-year academic degree that is becoming more and more common in Canada (as it is already in the US). The more general associate's degrees (for instance Associate of Arts, Associate of Science) can be transfer degrees for those wanting to transfer into a 4-year university bachelor's degree. Alternately, there are career/ professional associate's degrees, such as Associate of Occupational Studies or Associate of Technology.

  • Diploma/ Certificate: There are a wide variety of 1- to 3-year diploma and certificate programs at Canada's community colleges. Some are professional diplomas leading you into the job market right away, while others can be used to fulfill prerequisites or to transfer for advanced standing into university degree programs.

  • Programs Offered
    Zooming in closer, knowing the kind of program area you are interested in (such as agriculture, fine art or dental hygiene) will help you to find criteria to evaluate when looking at the different community college offerings. If you genuinely don't know what to study, scan a college's list of programs to explore your options and stimulate your imagination!

    Once you have a sense of your desired program, you can look at the department's or program's webpage to examine things like the size, options and level of specialization of the department. For instance, you might ask the following: How many professors are there in the department? (a larger department isn't necessarily better, but it does mean you will have more course choices.) Do any professors specialize in areas that are of interest to you? What kind of courses does the department offer? Is enrolment limited or will you end up in classes of several thousand students? Do the instructors seem credible? What credentials do they have? Have they published books and/or articles in their specialized areas? You may also want to investigate whether or not a co-op option exists for your desired program, since many students find co-ops valuable for work experience, networking, and as a source of income. Other features such as specialized facilities or study abroad/ exchange programs might also be factors in your choice: different community colleges have different projects on the go as well as agreements with different organizations-both academic and non-academic-that provide opportunities for students locally and internationally.

    Articulation and Transfer
    Many community colleges have agreements that allow students to transfer their community college credits toward a university degree. These agreements are called articulation agreements, and each community college will have different agreements with different universities. If you're interested in continuing your studies past community college, make sure you know how your community college credits will transfer to other colleges and universities.

    Location is a big factor in the choice of a community college, and there is a lot of choice in this area. While some community colleges are single-campus schools, others have multiple regional campuses throughout a province in order to make learning as accessible as possible to people in different areas. You will want to consider the college's proximity to home (whether distance or closeness is your ideal!) and be aware that if you choose a community college in another province, this will limit your visits home since travel back and forth is both costly and time-consuming. You would have to budget for travel costs, and this makes it difficult to get home for thanksgiving or other short holidays. So when selecting a community college, consider how often you would like to visit home and the amount of time and cost it will take to do so.

    Following that, you'll need to honestly evaluate your level of independence. Are you ready to be on your own? Do you foresee homesickness being an issue for you? Everyone matures at different rates, and there is no law that says you have to be ready to leave home at any particular age. Sometimes maturity comes in the form of recognizing that you are not yet ready to be on your own and, therefore, choosing either to wait a year before leaving or going to a community college in your hometown.

    The decision of where to go also depends on whether you prefer small towns, medium sized cities, or large metropolises. You may prefer to choose a place similar to what you're used to, or you may be ready for a radical change in this next phase of your life. Live in the south of Canada? Why not go north! Or if you live in a big city, try a small town. Bear in mind the climate of wherever you go, especially if it's dramatically different from what you're used to. Consider the pros and cons; for example, a long, harsh winter might be depressing if you are from a temperate, coastal climate, or it might be an opportunity to experience winter sports you haven't tried before! In any event, make sure you know what temperature and weather conditions to expect, and make sure you can live with them for the duration of your studies.

    Size and Culture
    When selecting a community college, you may want to think about its size. Usually, an institution's student population is indicative of its size, and you can find this information on the college's website. This will give you a sense of the kind of daily "traffic" you can expect on campus. Consider things like class size, but also peak "around campus" situations such as lunchtime in the cafeteria or mid-afternoon in the library. Again, you should consider your personality and your personal preferences when choosing the size of your school. Are you a "people person"? Or do crowds and line-ups make you impatient? Do you want anonymity in the classroom (i.e. do you want to seem invisible in a sea of students)? Or would you rather participate in class discussion or ask questions in a more personal atmosphere? Consider what learning environment best suits your personality.

    Some community colleges offer education within the context of an affiliation, so in terms of a school's "culture" you might want to consider, for example, whether it's religiously affiliated or focused on specialized topics such as liberal arts or the technology of certain industries. Other "culture" aspects of a community college could be whether it is known as a 'party school' or for its serious academics. Are the too many events that will get you off track? Or maybe you need a social environment to prevent you from burning out. Remember that reputation can be subjective, so don't automatically believe everything you hear! In terms of your peers, do you want to mix and meet with people from your own area or from other parts of Canada? Or maybe you want to go to a community college with a high percentage of international students for a more culturally diverse experience. All schools have different "vibes" which can affect your choice as much as size or location.

    Cost and Housing Options
    The three biggest costs associated with post-secondary school are basic living expenses, tuition fees and the cost of books and other supplies. Living at home, on-campus or away from home but off-campus are all choices you need to think about, since rent or student housing fees, groceries, meal plan, travel/ commuting expenses all add up. Finding a place to live can also involve differing amounts of time and energy, so you need to budget your money and your time. Be sure to explore your options for any scholarships and bursaries because every little bit helps-even if it is just $500 here, $300 there. Have you discussed finances with your parents? Maybe they plan to pay for tuition, residence fees, and your meal plan. Where will you get money for added expenses, such as entertainment, clothes, cell phone bills, etc.? Will you need a student loan? A job? If you'll need to work, are part-time studies available? Are there added fees with certain community colleges or even particular programs (such as lab fees, parking, uniforms, field trips, etc.)? Make sure you know ahead of time what costs you will have to cover with each of your options, so that you can factor them into your selection process.

    Entry Requirements
    Make sure you know what the entry requirements are (and ensure that you meet them) for each of your potential colleges. Look at your individual courses and your overall average, since both of these are often factors in a community college's admissions process. Be realistic and strategic in your application process: if your grades are not competitive, you do not need to feel powerless and give up. You simply need to plan your attack. For instance, many students find it's easier to get into a career college, acquire some credits there, and then apply or possibly transfer to a community college. Another option is to do upgrade classes to fulfill any course prerequisites you might have missed and/or boost your grades, and then (re)apply with improved chances of getting in. Also, if you wait a few years, you can gain admission as a "mature student," and you may find that the requirements are less strict. Research the options at the community colleges you are interested in, and make a plan.

    Quality/ Accreditation
    Every student hopes to get a "good" education, so there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure "quality." Some of these have been touched on already, such as researching the instructors' backgrounds. Other aspects to investigate are accreditation (at the institutional and/or program levels-see the section on Community College Accreditation for more details) and the resources available at the school. Does it have a good library? Does it have computing facilities? Does it have cutting-edge research labs? Is there anything related to your specific program that you need? Do they have it? For instance, if you are studying drama, do they have venues for performances and technical equipment for their productions, etc.?

    Extracurricular Activities and Student Support
    If what you do outside of class matters as much as what you do in the classroom, then you may want to give considerable weight to the quality of the school's extracurricular scene. This could include sports teams, student clubs, and general social activities on campus. For some students, participation in these kinds of activities defines their college experience.

    Community colleges aren't just called that for no reason: they are rooted in their communities and strive to help as many people as possible get a post-secondary education. Therefore, you should also look at the kinds of student support they offer. Things like day care, financial aid, counselling, tutoring, resources for students with special needs, and even job placement assistance can all be compared to help you make your choice of the community college that will serve you best.

    Your Gut Feeling
    In addition to weighing the intellectual pros and cons and costs of each community college, put some stock in your gut feeling about each-especially if you can visit the campus. Sometimes your intuition or gut instinct about a school can assess it more accurately than a list of its facts and figures. See for yourself what the school is like before committing time and money to it.

    So make the most of this time, wherever you choose to go. Don't fret or obsess about "what ifs" once you finally decide: if you ultimately find you are very unhappy with your decision, you can always transfer. Canada's community colleges are there for you!