A tip about the word “college” to my American neighbo[u]rs who wish to work in Canada

Canadian English and American English are very similar, allowing Anglophones in both countries to work and live with ease when crossing the border.  However, there is a subtle difference in our vocabularies that can have big consequences for job searches and professional development.  To my American neighbours (or neighbors, as it is spelled in the United States of America), I offer this tip to avoid any confusion.  It concerns our different usages of the words “college” and “university”.


The Peace Arch is a monument situated between Blaine, Washington and Surrey, British Columbia. Near this monument is a major border crossing between the USA and Canada.

Image courtesy of RGB2 from Wikimedia.

In the USA, the word “college” often refers to a 4-year, undergraduate education to obtain a Bachelor’s degree at a post-secondary educational institution.  This institution may have the word “college” or “university” in its name; however, most American undergraduate students would say that they are “going to college”, even if they are attending a university like George Mason University.  In the USA, the word “university” is sometimes reserved for graduate education, even if they are attending an institution like the College of William and Mary to get a graduate degree.

In contrast, the words “college” and “university” refer to two different types of post-secondary institutions in Canada, and they offer two different types of education.  In Canada, colleges offer more applied or vocational education, and they usually offer associate degrees or diplomas.  Some colleges do offer Bachelor’s degrees, and they tend to be for disciplines that are more applied.  Some colleges offer university-transfer programs, allowing students to complete their first 2 years of a Bachelor’s degree at a college, before transferring to a university for the last 2 years of study.  Some colleges specialize in trades, apprenticeships, languages, or enhancements of specific skills.

A university in Canada is an institution can grant a Bachelor’s degree based on a 4-year, undergraduate education; this is analogous to what Americans call “college”, and this is where the confusion can have significant consequences for job searchesIf an American obtained a Bachelor’s degree from a 4-year undergraduate education, then they need to tell Canadian employers that they went to a university, rather than a college.  Otherwise, Canadian employers may think that they went to a vocational college, whose education is less theoretical and more applied.

It is important to emphasize that a university education in Canada is not necessarily better than a college education; it all depends on what you care about.  Many students pursue post-secondary education specifically to gain employment.  If this is true for you, then note that many college programs offer better prospects for employment than many university programs, because some university disciplines are too theoretical or don’t aim to teach any specific skills that employers demand.  A Canadian employer seeking an IT administrator may prefer a college graduate who studied IT administration, rather than a university graduate who studied computing science.  Vocational or trade programs in colleges may be better for you than university programs, depending on your skills, interests, and the types of jobs that you want.

I happen to work in the information economy as a statistician, and employers in my industry expect at least a Bachelor’s degree in statistics or a related subject from a university, which offer the theoretical training that they often demand.  Thus, for my American neighbors who wish to work in Canada, I strongly encourage you to use the words “university” and “college” to distinctly clarify what type of education you have.


2 Responses to A tip about the word “college” to my American neighbo[u]rs who wish to work in Canada

  1. Ron Miksha says:

    Nice post. I was born in the USA but moved to Canada in my 20s, years ago. I agree with what you’ve written. I had precisely this discussion with a friend a few weeks back. You have explained it more nicely than I did. Thanks for that.
    I will add a point to emphasize the necessity of using the word ‘university’ when appropriate. I live in southern Alberta. It’s sort of Canada’s “Bible Belt” and there are a lot of church-based colleges here. Although there are also some excellent vocational colleges, whenever I hear someone talk about college I picture what we call a “Bible College.” Those may be fine schools, of course, but if you are applying for a science/math position, it’s best to describe yourself as having a university education.

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