01/19/2015 12:37 EST | Updated 03/21/2015 05:59 EDT

What Obama Can Teach Ontario About College

President Barack Obama speaks about proposed legislation to offer paid sick leave for working Americans during a stopping at Charmington's Cafe in Baltimore,Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. Earlier , the president signed a memorandum is to direct federal agencies to advance six weeks of paid sick leave that federal workers could use as paid family leave. Workers would have to pay back the sick leave over time. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The Obama administration's proposal to offer free tuition to community college students for two years has ignited a discussion about the benefits of a college education. One commentator put it this way: "It's time for the community college sector, the Cinderella of the post-secondary education, to come to the ball."

There are vast differences between the Canadian and the U.S. college systems but despite those differences, the emphasis on the career-focused programs at colleges is long overdue.

Encouraging more people to purse education after high school contributes to a vibrant and successful society. What Obama's announcement has reinforced is the need to put more emphasis on career-focused programs that are accessible to people in all socioeconomic groups.

Canada is well aware of the important role that colleges play in improving post-secondary attainment rates. Last year, the OECD reported that more adult Canadians have a post-secondary education than in any other country in the developing world. Canada's robust college system was the reason cited for this success.

But there is much more to be done.

In Ontario, the youth unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at 16 per cent. Adding to the challenge is a serious underemployment problem. Young people are working in jobs that don't fully utilize their skills at the same time that many employers can't fill well-paying positions because the applicants aren't qualified.

Our post-secondary system must place a greater emphasis on ensuring that students have access to career-specific programs as part of their learning. There needs to be a stronger focus on what happens to people after they graduate and enter the workforce.

In fact, polling research conducted just over a year ago found about two-thirds of Ontarians feel the main purpose of post-secondary education should be to teach skills and knowledge that can be directly used in the workplace.

Finding solutions takes creativity and a willingness to shake up old models of delivering programs. Helping more students acquire combinations of university and college programs must continue to be a priority. While there has been progress, more must be done to help students pursue combinations of college and university by ensuring that students receive proper recognition for their completed credits when they transfer.

Expanding the range of career-focused degree programs at colleges is another way to meet the demand in the marketplace.

Ontario's colleges are already offering four-year degree programs that provincial consultants have confirmed are successful. To support students who are able to meet degree-level standards and who are more interested in the programs offered at colleges, the province should expand the range of four-year degree programs at colleges.

Ontario colleges should also be allowed to offer three-year degrees that are comparable to the career-specific degrees available in most of the OECD.

This would ensure that students' achievements are being properly recognized. And it would help meet employers' demands for people with degree credentials who also have the high level of professional and technical skills required in today's more technologically demanding workplace.

The Canadian post-secondary landscape is comprised of excellent programs at both colleges and universities. Expanding the range of opportunities available at college isn't about replacing existing options -- it is about providing more choices to help more people attain a post-secondary education that allows them to compete effectively in the labour market.

There is a robust debate taking place right now south of the border about the value of a community college education.

Actor Tom Hanks wrote a riveting piece in the New York Times about how his two years of free community college shaped the person he is today. But it was his description of the truly eclectic mix of students that was so compelling. College education is accessible to all and helps ensure that people from all walks of life can acquire the qualifications and skills to achieve long-term success.

A college education opens doors for many who may not otherwise have pursued any form of post-secondary education. Free tuition may not be the answer in this country but Canada definitely needs to do more to make college education a priority.


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