Provincial and Territorial Ranking

College Attainment

Key Messages

  • Three Canadian provinces earn an “A+” on college attainment (New Brunswick, Ontario, and P.E.I.) for scoring higher than the best internationally ranked country—which in this case is Canada.
  • Almost every province has a higher college attainment rate than all of Canada's peer countries.
  • The number of Canadians who have attended college is likely underestimated, as it does not take into account those who completed college and then attended university, or vice versa.

Putting college attainment into context

Well-educated citizens are more actively engaged in society: they tend to make better choices about factors that affect their quality of life (e.g., diet, smoking, exercise); and they earn higher incomes than those who are less educated. Less prominent in the mind of the public, but equally well-known among decision-makers, is the fact that well-educated and skilled people make important contributions to business innovation, productivity, and national economic performance. In an interconnected global economy, countries (and provinces) with more highly skilled workers have a distinct competitive advantage.

What definition of “college” is used in this report card?

International data on college attainment is obtained from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD uses the definition from the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED), which differs slightly from the way Canadians typically classify post-secondary education. Under the ISCED’s categorization, vocational programs (including trade certificates and diplomas) are not considered “college” programs. The implication is that individuals with certificates and diplomas are not counted as college graduates. This is a significant group in Canada, and likely in other countries. For consistency and comparability, the ISCED’s definition has been used to compare provincial data with international data.

It is important to note that countries (or provinces) that do very well on college attainment will likely not do as well on university attainment. The total percentage of college and university graduates in a country cannot exceed 100 per cent; therefore, at a certain point, increasing rates of graduates from one type of institution will decrease rates for the other type. This is the case, for example, in Norway, which ranks last on college attainment but first on university attainment.

How do provincial college graduation rates compare internationally?

As a whole, Canada has the highest rate of college attainment among its peer countries. In fact, every province in Canada except Saskatchewan has a higher college attainment rate than Canada’s peer countries. Three provinces earn “A+” grades because they have higher rates than the best-performing international country, which in this case is Canada. Only Japan and Belgium have higher college attainment rates than the lowest-performing province, Saskatchewan, which scores a “B” grade.

New Brunswick, Ontario, and P.E.I. are the top performers, tied for first place with 28 per cent of their working-age population having a college degree in 2011. This attainment rate is 2.7 times that of the United States, and 12.6 times that of Norway. Whether countries emphasize college or university may in part be a function of a country’s industrial structure. In Japan, where there is a large share of high-technology manufacturing, many Japanese students pursue vocational training in technology colleges and professional training colleges that better prepare them to join the workforce. Not surprisingly, Norway, an oil-based economy, which ranks close to the bottom of the pack on the share of high-technology manufacturing, has correspondingly low rates of college attainment. Energy-related occupations demand higher numbers of vocationally trained employees, which are not included in the ISCED definition of “college.”

How do the provinces perform relative to each other?

In addition to ranking the provinces against Canada’s international peers, the provinces have been compared with each other and placed into three categories: “above average,” “average,” and “below average.”1

P.E.I., New Brunswick, and Ontario are considered above average on college attainment, while Saskatchewan is classified as below average. Even though Saskatchewan performs well against Canada’s peer countries, it is ranked below average relative to its provincial counterparts.

What happens to the rankings if trade and vocational programs are included?

The International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) does not include trade and vocational programs in its definition of college attainment. However, to get a fuller picture of college attainment within Canada, it is important to include trade and vocational programs in the analysis.

Including the trade and vocational programs changes the rates of college attainment significantly for some provinces. Newfoundland and Labrador has one of the lowest college attainment rates using the OECD definition; however, when trade and vocational programs are included, it has the highest rate of college attainment—jumping eight positions from ninth to first. This is partly due to the importance of primary industries (e.g., fishing, forestry, and mining) in the province.

What if we examine the flow of college graduates rather than the stock?

In the sections above, the focus is on the “stock” of college graduates within the Canadian working-age population. A more complete picture of college attainment emerges when current rates of graduation are examined; in other words, when we examine the current “flow” of graduates.

Quebec becomes the top performer when the most recent provincial graduation rates are compared. This is not surprising given Quebec’s extensive CEGEP (collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel) program. CEGEP is a pre-university program offered after Grade 11 that replaces the extra year of high school provided in other Canadian provinces. As a two-year program, however, it also covers one year of community college, and is therefore considered a college by Canadian and international (ISCED) standards. It is a prerequisite for university acceptance. CEGEP enrolment is around 165,000 per year.2 Graduation rates can better reflect what is actually happening in the college system given that census and labour force data ask about the “highest level of education.” This means that individuals who complete college and then go to university (or vice versa) would only be counted as university graduates.

What explains the poor performance of the Prairie provinces?

On both college attainment (including the trades and vocational programs) and recent college graduation rates, the Prairie provinces do not perform well. A number of factors have been cited as contributing to the relatively lower overall educational attainment in the Prairie provinces:3

  • Some students are drawn to lucrative jobs in Alberta and Saskatchewan that do not require post-secondary education.
  • The number of Aboriginal students in the Prairie provinces is higher than many other provinces; for many reasons Aboriginal students continue to have lower levels of educational attainment.
  • A further difficulty is the challenge of living in rural and remote regions. Access to post-secondary education and the perception that locally available jobs do not require a post-secondary education may influence youth in these regions to forgo post-secondary education.

How are Aboriginal people faring on college attainment?

While First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people lag significantly behind the non-Aboriginal population on high-school attainment, the rates for college attainment are not as far apart. Complete data on Aboriginal peoples are difficult to obtain; however, the 2011 National Household Survey does provide some insights. According to this survey, rates of college attainment for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people differ by 2 percentage points or less in five provinces. The largest gaps between attainment rates for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people are in P.E.I. and Saskatchewan in favour of non-Aboriginal people. In Ontario, Aboriginal people have a higher rate of college attainment—27 per cent compared with 23 per cent for the non-Aboriginal population.

Is a university degree better than a college diploma?

It has long been argued, based on income data, that university attainment is the most relevant indicator of Canada’s ability to produce highly talented, innovative people. The “returns on education” data support this argument, since university graduates, as a group, earn more, on average, than college graduates.

However, more university graduates are seeking a college diploma after obtaining their degree. In 2000, 10 per cent of college graduates had previously completed a university degree.4 In 2005, that number rose to 13 per cent.5 This increase may reflect the value seen in the applied programs offered by colleges. Further research is needed to determine when university graduates enrol in college programs (e.g., do they enrol right after graduation from university or mid-career), and what types of programs they are taking (e.g., an extension of their undergraduate course or a complete career change).

Recent research suggests the field of study may be more important than the type of academic institution attended. One study, for example, found that men with university degrees in academic disciplines—such as the humanities, biology, and agriculture science—earned less than half that earned by men with university degrees in vocational and applied disciplines—such as commerce, medicine, and engineering.6 Another study identified similar differences in earnings for college disciplines in Canada and found that these discrepancies drove enrolments toward disciplines with higher earnings expectations.7

Perhaps the distinction between college and university is less important than the relevance of the discipline to the workplace, since it is relevance—along with supply and demand—that sets the market price for skilled talent.


1    To compare the performance of Canadian provinces relative to one another, we first determined the average score and standard deviation of the provincial values. The standard deviation is a measure of how much variability there is in a set of numbers. If the numbers are normally distributed (i.e., the distribution is not heavily weighted to one side or another and/or does not have significant outliers), about 68 per cent will fall within one standard deviation above or below the average. Any province scoring one standard deviation above the average is “above average.” Provinces scoring less than the average minus one standard deviation are “below average.” The remaining provinces are “average” performers.

2    Federation des cégeps, A Few Figures on CEGEPs (accessed March 6, 2014).

3    Marlyn Chisholm, Going for Gold: Boosting Educational Attainment in Western Canada (Calgary: Canada West Foundation, 2009).

4    Mary Allen and Chantal Vaillancourt, Class of 2000: Profile of Postsecondary Graduates and Student Debt, Catalogue no. 81-595-MIE—No. 016 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2004).

5    Justin Bayard and Edith Greenlee, Graduating in Canada: Profile, Labour Market Outcomes, and Student Debt of the Class of 2006, Catalogue no. 81-595-M—No. 074 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2009).

6    Alan Stark, Which Fields Pay, Which Fields Don't? An Examination of the Returns to University Education in Canada by Detailed Field of Study (Ottawa: Department of Finance Canada, February 2007).

7    Brahim Boudarbat, Earnings and Community College Field of Study Choice in Canada, Discussion paper (Bonn: Institute for the Study of Labour, May 2004).

Image of an open book Definition

Percentage of the population aged 25–64 with a college diploma (not including trade certificates and diplomas).

Please note:
The data on this page are current as of June 2014.