by Sarena Johnson
Last week I intended to take a general look at CEGEPS and in the process of looking I was confronted with my English language privilege. I chose to process that a bit before proceeding. (You can read the first post here.) I also had a chance to speak with three Quebecers about CEGEPS and their experiences with language. I spoke with Émilie Martel, Senior Lead, CEGEP Partnerships at Concordia University, with Emily Jones, Manager, Assessment and Development, Ryerson Career Center, and with Matthew Fishman, Student Recruitment Officer at Concordia. Now we can return to the original intention of this project: to take a look at CEGEPS and provide a basic overview: What they are, how they differ from other school systems in Canada and their identified benefits to students.
What is a CEGEP?
CEGEP stands for Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel, which translates to general vocational college. Quebec students receive a high school diploma after finishing grade 11, when they leave and go to CEGEP for two or three years. Three year DEC’s (CEGEP diplomas or Diplôme d’études collégiales or ‘Diploma of College Studies’) are for vocational/technical college graduates. Two year DEC’s are for pre-university students.
How does the CEGEP system differ from other provinces?
The most basic difference is that students in Quebec graduate from high school one year earlier than the rest of Canada. From there they go to CEGEP, either living at home or on campus. Most rural students who don’t have a CEGEP near their family homes opt to live on campus. Remember OAC/grade 13 in Ontario? CEGEP is kind of like having grades 12 and 13 lumped together into a general college diploma.
The university degrees in Quebec are three years long, so a student going to CEGEP before university would finish at the same time as a student doing a standard four year bachelor’s degree out of grade 12. The three year vocational DEC is more like your standard vocational college diploma. Students would again finish at the same time as grade 12 students who went to college for two years after high school. Then they would enter the workforce. However, there’s an increasing trend towards three year vocation DEC grads choosing to attend university as well. We’ll discuss that further in a future post.
What are some benefits of CEGEPS?
CEGEPS have numerous benefits to students. Here are some advantages as discussed by the folks I had a chance to talk to:
CEGEPS teach time management because students are responsible for choosing their courses from a set timetable. The day often runs from 9am to 5pm, which gets students used to a longer day than high school. Students don’t have to deal with as many erratic schedules or late classes as in University.
CEGEPS are more affordable than other forms of higher education. For Quebec students CEGEPS can cost as little as $200 per semester. Even for out of province students, the cost is about $2000 per semester, two semesters a year. Which means out of province pre-university students could come out of CEGEP owing $8,000 tuition debt or Vocational students with $12,000 tuition debt. In both cases, that’s quite a bit lower than many students elsewhere in Canada upon post-secondary graduation. And CEGEP grads are considered employable with either a two or three year DEC. Decreasing debt and maximizing employability have numerous benefits for a student’s future, including for their mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Student development & mental health:
Emily Jones grew up in a tiny town in Quebec. She stated that going from there straight to an urban space like Ryerson would have been a huge culture shock. The closest CEGEP was two hours from her home, so moving there provided a transition phase into post-secondary settings in urban spaces. She also grew up knowing that at age 17 she would be leaving home for CEGEP, which she feels assisted with her development into independence and adulthood.
Students who go to CEGEP before University end up being more mature by the time they get there. They’ve already had some time away from home and the novelty of independent living has settled. They tend to be more focused and mature. Emily said that at the University of Ottawa she saw a big difference between the Quebec students and Ontario students in that regard.
CEGEPS also aim to create well-rounded students. Whether a student is in pure science, applied sciences, business, or arts and sciences streams, they are all required to take elective courses outside those streams. So all science students would also be required to take humanities courses as well as English, French, and Phys. Ed.
Emily shared that her tiny Quebec town didn’t have the opportunity to model many career choices. She took sciences in CEGEP with the intent of going to McGill to become an Occupational Therapist (OT). Luckily, McGill and her CEGEP had a coo-op partnership in OT. She hated it, and was grateful for the opportunity to try it out before committing. So CEGEPS provide more flexibility in that you don’t need to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life from the position of being a high school student. They provide more flexibility for exploration.
Quality of teaching/personal connection:
CEGEPS provide much smaller class sizes than the populous first year college and university classes. Think, Psych 101 in Convocation Hall. Since there are fewer students, there’s an increased likelihood for hands on help or that a Professor or TA will catch a student who might be struggling.
CEGEP teachers are also more engaged and involved with students lives so they are more likely to actually know their students than at other institutions of higher education. In a lot of ways CEGEP is a step between the highly structured environment of high school and the independence required of University, and the teaching engagement reflects that.
It’s hard for me to write this and not feel like it’s a sales pitch for CEGEPS. So now that we’ve taken a general look at CEGEPS and listed some of the benefits of the system, I’m wondering why the rest of Canada hasn’t adopted this system? It seems like it would be incredibly beneficial to students transitioning into University and into adulthood in general. But before I go further, it would be appropriate to look at criticisms of the CEGEP system and how they fit within a uniquely Quebecois education framework. Check back in September for part three of the CEGEPS series. And of course, feel free to join in on the conversation on #SAcdn or in the discussion board right here on SA-exchange.