In 2000, the Postsecondary Education Choice and Excellence Act authorised Ontario’s colleges to award bachelor degrees. It marked a milestone in a journey that had begun a decade earlier with Charles Pascal’s (1990) Vision 2000, which recommended the creation of new degree-granting institutions. The government justified this reform on various grounds. A strong rationale was broadening student access to baccalaureate level study, particularly for students from groups under-represented in the university.

In 2002, college baccalaureates were officially introduced into Ontario’s post-secondary education (PSE) system, with nine colleges offering 12 baccalaureate programmes. In 2016, thirteen colleges offered 108 baccalaureate programmes, and with full-time enrolments estimated at 15,000. However, the question remains about the extent to which college baccalaureates have achieved the social objective of widening access – that is, facilitated baccalaureate completion rates for traditionally under-represented target groups.

Prior studies in other jurisdictions indicate that college baccalaureates have indeed broadened PSE participation for under-represented groups (Floyd, Skolnik, & Walker, 2005; Wheelahan, Moodie, Billett, & Kelly, 2009). Our Ontario Human Capital Research and Innovation Fund research project addresses this issue by focusing on the characteristics of students enrolled in college baccalaureate programmes, their decision making processes, their reasons for enrolment, and the impact of participation on their identities.

In our study analysis, we applied a theoretical framework developed by Ball, Reay, and David (2002) regarding two ideal types of students in terms of PSE choice: embedded and contingent choosers. Embedded choosers are those students who have a clearly forged pathway to PSE coming out of high school, whereas contingent choosers are those for whom participation in PSE depends upon overcoming one or more barriers. The two ideal types build on Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of ‘cultural capital’ which, in its simplest form, refers to the kinds of symbolic wealth transmitted from middle-and upper-income parents to their children to sustain family status across generations (Bourdieu, 1977). Generally, it is embedded choosers who possess this cultural capital.

The study presents evidence obtained through interviews with 22 baccalaureate students from five Ontario colleges. Preliminary analysis of interview data offers interesting results. For example, 60% of the interviewees were non-traditional students above the age of 25 years. 55% students explained that their decisions to choose college baccalaureates were informed mostly by a ‘word of mouth’ from those in their immediate social circle: friends, colleagues, and sometimes parents. Reasons for choosing a college degree programmes varied, but the most important reasons were location, cost, greater opportunities for coops, the applied nature of programmes, availability of specialised programmes, lower admission requirements, and ample financial aids for students with outstanding academic credentials at high school.

Data also suggest that college baccalaureate students are, more often than not, contingent PSE choosers. This is evident in two of our findings. First is the local considerations for decision making: cost, location, coops, and financial aid are important for college baccalaureate students, in stark contrast with embedded choosers’ considerations such as status and prestige of degrees. Second, 73% of students report no parental involvement in the decision to attend a college baccalaureate programme.

As to student identity, our analysis shows that college baccalaureate students identify more with the field of study than with the college they attend. Students interviewed indicate that when asked how they describe their experience to family, friends, and acquaintances, they prefer to talk about their field of study or the profession they want to enter before they volunteer the name of the institution in which they are undertaking this degree.

Our analysis provide insights into the contributions colleges can make to dealing with the challenge of fulfilling the growing demand for bachelor degrees and the provision of equitable access to baccalaureate education and other access initiatives.

Contributor: Edmund Adam


Ball, S. J., Reay, D., & David, M. (2002). Ethnic choosing: Minority ethnic students, social class and higher education choice. Race Ethnicity and Education, 5(4), 333-357. doi:10.1080/1361332022000030879

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In J. Karabel & A. H. Halsey (Eds.), Power and ideology in education (pp. 487-511). New York: Oxford University Press.

Floyd, D. L., Skolnik, M. L., & Walker, K. P. (2005). The community college baccalaureate: Emerging trends and policy issues. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.

Vision 2000. (1990). Quality and opportunity. The final report of the vision 2000 task force. Toronto: Ministry of Colleges and Universities.

Wheelahan, L., Moodie, G., Billett, S., & Kelly, A. (2009). Higher education in TAFE. Adelaide: National Centre for Vocational Education Research.