VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Caveats about the data aside – and there are plenty,  admittedly – the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s heavily used rankings on countries’ college outcomes place Canada at the top of the list for the proportion of citizens with a postsecondary credential.
So when President Obama, in a speech to Congress in February, set a goal of having the United States get back to the top of that ranking by 2020, "that means that you're trying to bump us off," Noel Baldwin, a policy and research officer at the Canada Millennium Scholarship Fund, told a group of mostly American researchers during the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.
Baldwin and the fund’s associate executive director, Andrew Parkin, dubbed their presentation “Canada: An Easy Target? What American Educators Need to Know to Overtake Canada as the OECD’s Most Educated Country, and What Canadian Educators Need to Know to Prevent It.” The title was a joke, sort of, but it provoked some fascinating, and very sobering, discussion about the impediments that stand in the way of efforts to ramp up the number of Americans with college degrees – and, among other things, about what kinds of degrees they should be.
First, those pesky numbers. Forty-seven percent of Canadians have a postsecondary degree of some kind, compared to 39 percent of Americans, and the numbers look worse (or better, if you're Canadian) when you look at citizens aged 25 to 34, as 55 percent of Canadians and 39 percent of Americans in that group have degrees (placing the U.S. 10th).
Why is that so? Several reasons, structural, societal and otherwise, the Canadian researchers asserted.
- The mix of institutions is different, with much greater proportions of Canadians going to what the country calls "colleges" (which are two-year and career institutions) than to universities. Of the 55 percent of Canadians with degrees, nearly half, 26 percent, have sub-baccalaureate degrees from colleges, while in America, only 5 percent, out of the 39 percent of all those with postsecondary degrees, have the sub-baccalaureate degrees.
- Tuitions are lower (in Quebec, college -- as opposed to university -- is free).
- There is less income inequality in Canada, and also more equality in the academic preparation of young people by socioeconomic status. So while it's a much-bemoaned fact in the United States that wealthy students with poor academic credentials are more likely to go on to higher education than are high-achieving poor students, that's not true of Canada, Parkin said.
- Significantly greater proportions of second generation immigrants graduate from high school and go on to postsecondary education in Canada than in the United States.
So what might the United States do to catch up to Canada? Or, as Parkin put it, "We're giving you our pointers so that you can help President Obama meet his goal."
Of course, two of the three suggestions aren't exactly going to be quick fixes: ensure a "more equitable distribution of income" across the population (a worthy goal, but "the extent to which you can work on that may be a different matter," Baldwin acknowledged), and ensure better educational outcomes for immigrants, another major challenge.
But the third was interesting: develop a "more flexible [postsecondary education] system with better non-university options," particularly for low-achieving students. In Canada, the colleges are seen as not only a viable option, but in many ways the option of choice, for many young people. In the United States, meanwhile, Baldwin said it seemed as if there is a "tendency to push four-year degree attainment," often making sub-baccalaureate degrees seem like a second-rate option.
Still, the idea that the U.S. lacked "non-university options" seemed to perplex many in the audience. Aren't there already significant non-four-year options in the United States -- where close to half of all students enroll at some point in a community college, and the proportion of Americans enrolling in for-profit colleges is approaching 10 percent, many of them in sub-baccalaureate programs?
Dewayne Matthews, vice president for policy and strategy at the Lumina Foundation for Education, the designated "respondent" to the Canadian researchers, noted that some policy experts in the United States have argued that the way the federal government and the OECD currently count the completion data significantly undercount the American numbers,  by omitting community college students who transfer without an associate degree but never get a bachelor's, for instance, or take a six-month certificate program in body shop work and then get a job paying $40,000 a year.
Matthews said he wasn't sure that even counting such people would significantly change the overall picture, and an additional slide of data that the Canadian researchers presented seemed to offer a clearer -- and potentially more troubling -- explanation for the gap. About two-thirds of Canadians who enter "college" (remember, we're talking two-year public and private career institutions) graduate within four years, and only 19 percent have given up on postsecondary education entirely. The proportion of graduates rises to 73 percent after five years.
By comparison, U.S. federal data show, fewer than half of first-time freshmen who enrolled at two-year institutions in 1995-96 had either transferred to a four-year institution or earned a degree or other academic credential within six years. While some of those students may not be seeking a degree, the much lower success rates of American community college students seems like an inarguable problem, Matthews said.
While it might have seemed like a ploy to make the mostly American audience feel better, Baldwin said that his country was "stealing things" from American higher education all the time, because "we're going to try to stay ahead of you on those [rankings] tables."
American colleges are doing a much better job with early intervention efforts to get low-income young people prepared for college, for instance, and much more effectively using institutional financial aid, he said.