Yesterday, I outlined the key similarities between the US and Canadian higher education systems. Today, let’s talk differences.
The most obvious dissimilarity is some of the institutional forms. Religious colleges are much thicker in the ground in the US, as are liberal arts colleges (neither is unknown in Canada, but they take up a lot less space). Community colleges look vastly different: in Canada they are their own sector, with most programs leading to stand-alone vocational credentials, though “vocational” is increasingly a white collar as well as a blue-collar thing. In the United States they are often thought of merely as pathways to universities, and indeed are often put together in a single governing structure (e.g. community colleges in Alaska are explicitly part of the “University of Alaska” system – something that would never happen up here). Generally speaking, US community colleges are much smaller and apart perhaps from a couple of the biggest colleges in Texas and Florida, they don’t have the capacity to do what our Polytechnics do.
There is also the large private sector in U.S. higher education. Many private institutions are small liberal arts and denominational colleges, but there are two big outliers. First, there is the large for-profit sector. Canada also has some for-profit education, though most people don’t notice it because they offer few degrees. Then, there are the prestige private-not-for-profits – especially the top 20-30 or (Harvard, Stanford, etc) which dominate world rankings. There is simply nothing like them in Canada – or anywhere else in the world for that matter. And these are more important because of the way they shape not just their own realities, but also those of the top end of the public system because of how the nexus of prestige and money operates.
Firstly, there is the competition for resources. Many of these top-tier privates are so well-endowed that they do not really need to charge tuition. Princeton, for instance, averages 12.7% returns on its endowment. Based on their 2020 endowment, a 4% payout to the equals a little over $ 1 billion per year or over $133,000 per student. They are endowment-dependent rather than tuition dependent. They charge high (but not market-clearing) fees because most people equate price with quality and they don’t want to look cheap.
But not all prestige institutions are so lucky. And public institutions can never be truly endowment dependent (in fairness, the University of Michigan does a good time trying, and there is Texas’s $30 billion endowment, though to some extent this tends to be used in place of appropriations rather than supplements). So, the only way they can compete financially with privates is to charge higher fees to out-of-state students. As a result, an entire industry around recruiting those out-of-state students, and providing incredibly expensive master’s degrees (US$106,000 for a one-year data journalism master’s, anyone?) has arisen.
You might think that on its own – the highly unequal pursuit of funds with which to pursue prestige – is enough to explain why American universities look different from ours, but you need to layer two other things on top of it. The first factor is cultural. There is a significant strand of (mainly white middle-class) opinion that has come to believe that university is supposed to be “the best four years” of a young person’s life. And so, to put it mildly, there is a much bigger emphasis on school amenities than there is literally anywhere else. It’s why you get the emphasis on high-end food service, climbing gyms, waterparks/lazy rivers and the like. And in the end pretty much all of it gets paid out of tuition. But you have to find people who will pay this money. Hence the declining focus on access, and the pursuit of students with wealthy parents.
Now marry this process with institutional attempts to “curate” their incoming classes. This is partly about creating an ethnically/racially diverse student body (no mean feat given the fact that the two big sources of gatekeeping to higher education – standardized tests and money – are such strong headwinds to lean against), but also about creating one which has the right proportions of athletes, musicians, social activists, entrepreneurs, etc. This, plus the fact that institutional prestige is so highly stratified creates an enormous and frankly ludicrous “admissions industry”, which is not just a parasitical industry, but one that deeply warps the way institutions prioritise their spending in order to attract the “right” students (let me urge everyone again to read Jeff Selingo’s Who Gets in And Why: A Year Inside College Admissions if you want more on all this – he captures it all extremely well).
I don’t want to belabour this, but it’s all pretty weird, and totally without equivalent in Canada. When our schools want to compete on money, they just go recruit more international students from China or India.
Then there’s college sports. Partly, you can see them as a response to student demand for good times on campus and institutions’ demands for money. Certainly, the University of Alabama’s status as the institution with the greatest number out-of-state (ie full-fee paying) students in the US is not unconnected with the success of its football team. This isn’t just a big institution thing, either. More and more liberal arts schools have worked out that a lot of young people who have played baseball, soccer, football, whatever all their lives will pony up $30K/year to keep doing so at college level, even if they have to do it in NCAA Division III instead of at one of the big schools.
But it should also be noted that the development of college sports was also a response to populist impulses in the early 20th centuries. As people began to wonder why these universities were taking so much public money and delivering benefits only to a fragment of the population, institutions hit on sports as a way to “give back” to the community through entertainment (this process is well-explained in the Charles Clotfelter’s Big-Time Sports in American Universities). To some extent, you can think of these activities as a legacy of another unique point of American higher education – namely, that it was way ahead of Canada in providing public support to higher education, and that institutions there (land-grants in particular) take their relationship to their local publics somewhat more seriously than ours do, even if they sometimes show it in odd ways.
And finally, one last point of difference is the way that public institutions are predominantly governed as parts of a system rather than as individual institutions. The way these systems work varies widely: sometimes it’s one governing board for every institution in the state, sometimes it’s two or even three depending on institutional mission groupings. Sometimes the governing boards are chosen by Governor, sometimes by the legislature, and sometimes by vote of the public (Alabama’s co-ordinating board, for instance, has one member elected from each congressional district). And the powers of the Board vary substantially too: sometimes they are true governing boards (i.e. the centre tells institutions what to do) and other times they are just “co-ordinating” boards who try to chivvy independent institutions into being more co-operative with one another (Alberta seems likely to get one of the latter fairly soon). And there are governors and legislatures looking over these institutions’ shoulders. On the whole, what this means is that the average American public university probably has somewhat less freedom of action that the average Canadian one.
Anyways, that’s the 50-cent tour of Canadian and American higher education. Hope you found it helpful.