Cost of University vs College in Canada

While I often do everything I can to dispel the myth of “college is for students that can’t get into university”, sometimes the argument ultimately boils down to cold hard cash.  If you checked out More Money for Beer and Textbooks – A Financial Guide for Today’s Canadian Student, or some of our previous articles that are very complimentary of the trades, you know that I’m a big fan of skilled labour in Canada.  What you might not know is that not only do many tradespeople graduate from their post-secondary education with better career prospects than their peers with BAs, they also owe a whole lot less in student debt as well.

A $23,000 Apple or $4,000 Orange?

So just how do the two educational paths stack up?  We’ll it’s tough to compare the apples and oranges, but overall college-related credentials probably save students more than most people would think.  Obviously there are some fairly large differences between a bachelor of arts degree and a Ph.D. in neurosurgery.  By the same token, an 8-month certificate course is not equivalent to a carpentry program that uses 3 or 4 years to get you to your Red Seal Journeyman’s designation.  So for the sake of comparison we’ll look at a basic undergraduate degree versus a couple of different college options.

Cost of University vs College in Canada
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Stats Canada reports that in 2012 the average cost for a student to take a full-time undergraduate course load at one of Canada’s universities was $5,581.  Most students now take four years to finish their initial degree, and with tuition rising quicker than the rate of inflation across the country, $23,000 in tuition over the four years is probably a good estimate.

Related: How Much Does School Cost?

There are no average statistics available from what I could tell when it comes to trades programs across Canada.  Because I’m lazy I decided that Manitoba’s main colleges would at least be a good indicator to draw some preliminary numbers from, so all numbers used are actual 2012/2013 quotes from their websites.

There are many 8-24 month certificates and diploma programs so comparing them is difficult.  A two-year business administration program will run you just under $3,000 a year in tuition.  A two-year culinary arts diploma will set you back just over $4,200.  A seven-month program that will get you a welding certificate and a student CWB (Canadian Welding Bureau) ticket is just over $3,100.  These programs offer great hands-on experience and give students a real advantage in terms of making contacts within their industries.  Best of all, the tuition for their entire program is in the $3,000-$8,000 range instead of the $23,000 figure listed above.

Come Out of School With Savings Instead of Debt?

Now, those programs sound like great deals, but where colleges really start to shine is if you look at the numbers for in-demand careers like electricians, carpenters, machinists and other skilled labour.  In order to understand the costs and benefits associated with these programs it is important to know just how they are structured.  The end goal for most tradespeople is to get a journeyman’s Red Seal designation that will entitle them to certain levels of wages and basically states that someone has attained a certain level of skill through education and experience.  On the way to this end-goal, there are usually 3 or 4 apprenticeship levels.  To advance to the next level, a combination of in-class theory work and a certain amount of hours must be achieved.  The great part of this deal is that while the schooling does cost money, the work experience part of the program actually pays workers in addition to giving them an opportunity to make contacts within the industry.  Not only that, but the way most students choose to go through their trades program, they can college employment insurance while they are attending classes and not earning a wage.  University students that just read that might need to take a second look – yes these students get paid to work while they train for their career, and then the government pays them while they’re sitting in class.

Let’s use the electrician program in Manitoba as an example.  Here’s an excerpt from the government of Canada’s website:

“The apprenticeship is four years consisting of four levels. Practical and technical training is a minimum of 1800 hours per level. About 80 per cent of the time is spent learning practical on-the-job skills under the supervision of a certified journeyperson and 20 per cent consists of learning the theoretical and technical aspects of the trade through in-school training.”

While working as an apprentice, electricians in Manitoba earn between $13.33 and $19.48 as they move up the scale.

A carpenter apprenticeship by comparison also has four levels and these “student” earn between $18.45 and $28.70 while they work up the chain.  This doesn’t count all the opportunities for “cash work” that are bound to present themselves to you as well (see this article on the not-so-criminal black market for details).

So being that you get to make money as you pay for school, one might think that these programs must cost a lot of money to get into right?  Well at Winnipeg Technical Institute you can get your first two apprenticeship levels for electrical in 10 months and the cost is $3,850 (which you will make much more than in wages alone).  If you want to be a carpenter you can get your first level for $1,950.  It’s pretty safe to say that for all four levels of an apprenticeship, most programs won’t have tuition costs of more than $8,000-$10,000.  When you combine this basic reality with the incredible programs many provinces are introducing at the high school level to lure kids into the trades (Manitoba schools will actually pay Manitoba kids minimum wage + 10%, in addition to allowing them to earn credits if they take part in many trades programs), and the huge amount of federal & provincial tax incentives to go into trades I don’t really see how it’s possible to be in any debt at all once you’re done your apprenticeship.  In fact, I know several people who have been able to buy new vehicles or put the down payment on a house as they go through school using these programs!

One Last Thing You May Not Have Considered

In comparing tuition alone this looks like a pretty obvious case to make, but that actually ignores one other mark in favour of a college-based education: you get done faster.  This might not be true someone who takes four years to get a journeyman’s designation, but if you compare a two-year college business program to a four-year university degree you can take on two years’ worth of living cost and ancillary fees savings in addition to the tuition differential.  Not only that, but as someone who graduates two years earlier, you’re in the job market with your credential and making money far sooner than your four-year colleague.

Many would argue that in some cases future earnings will balance this out.  That is true in some instances, but even in those cases, it usually takes a couple decades for everything to equal out since starting $20,000-$80,000 behind takes a while to recover from.

I’m not saying university is a bad idea or that college programs are always better than university programs.  This isn’t the case at all.  You can’t become a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or vet in college.  I’m just saying that we need to do a better job of disseminating these facts so that we can all make educated decisions about our career paths.

Did any of these facts surprise you?  If anyone has first-hand information about the costs associated with college programs in Alberta, B.C. or Ontario I wouldn’t mind seeing some numbers.  Remember, the numbers I showed did not include textbooks or ancillary fees (which are roughly equivalent at both college and university in Manitoba at least).

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