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.

In 2002, legislation changed in Ontario allowing public colleges in the province to offer baccalaureate degrees for the first time (Clark, Moran, Skolnik & Trick, 2009). Presently (2017), almost 15,000 students are studying in over 100 college baccalaureate programs at 13 out of 24 public colleges in Ontario. The number of applications for college baccalaureates more than tripled from 2006 to over 36,000 in 2014, demonstrating the demand for this type of programming.  But how do college baccalaureates differ in content and delivery from their university analogues?

To answer this question, we compared the curricula of college baccalaureates with those of cognate degrees offered at universities within Ontario. Five college degree programs from the fields of applied arts, business, health and technology were selected based on enrolment numbers and the number of years that the degree had been offered. Two types of Ontario universities were identified for the analysis of the cognate degrees: those focused on experiential and Work Integrated Learning (WIL), and those with a primary focus on intensive research.[1]

To conduct the curriculum analysis, we drew upon the work of Basil Bernstein, a key English sociologist of education in the last quarter of the 20th century.  In his analysis of curriculum, Bernstein identified two types of knowledge—esoteric knowledge and mundane knowledge. These types of knowledge form two discourses within curriculum—vertical and horizontal.  Vertical discourses describe knowledge that is not segmented by specific contexts, and may thus be considered esoteric, or abstract. In contrast, horizontal discourses are those that embody every day or “mundane” knowledge: that which operates and is understood in specific contexts (Bernstein, 2000; Wheelahan, 2010).

For each of the institutions in the study, we examined how curriculum is linked to theoretical bodies of knowledge versus every day knowledge. The analytical process we used identifies rules that have been created for the selection, sequencing, pacing and evaluation of knowledge, with an emphasis on links with the labour market, and the role of the labour market in the design and the delivery of college baccalaureates.

Based on Bernstein’s identification of two types of knowledge discourses, vertical and horizontal, our analysis of curriculum demonstrates a stronger link between college curriculum and horizontal knowledge. Links to the labour market are evident in curriculum design, program delivery, and eventual employment of graduates. The table below provides an example of the different content of degrees at different institutions. It also shows variations in the focus of cognate degrees in two different universities within the system. There are, therefore, variations between types of institutions, but also variations within institutional types.

Table: Weight of Skill-Based Knowledge Within Curriculum

  Applied Theoretical Outside Discipline Co-op/Work Placement
Seneca 50% 28% 10% 12%
Ryerson 24% 37% 9% 30%
York 20% 45% 35% 0%


The findings of this study may be helpful to students and families. Understanding the different curriculum orientations of programs is essential for prospective students as they compare and contrast the baccalaureate options available to them. Our findings invite further investigation into the ability of the differently oriented baccalaureates to prepare students for the labour market, or further studies at the graduate level. The findings also demonstrate wide variation in cognate bachelor degrees across the system, the students that they serve, and the approaches taken to curriculum.

Despite such lack of uniformity, we continue to evaluate college baccalaureates against those offered by universities as if the latter serves as a singular benchmark. Further, criteria more suitable to evaluating cognate degrees does not acknowledge the distinctive aims of applied degrees. Given the variety of outcomes and purposes served by baccalaureates offered by all kinds of institutions in the province, isn’t it time to stop treating college degrees as poor cousins, and recognize the legitimate role they play in higher education?

Contributor: Diane Simpson


Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.

Clark, I., Moran, G., Skolnik, M. & Trick, D.  (2009).  Academic transformations: The forces reshaping higher education in Ontario. Montreal and Kingston: Queen’s Policy Studies Series, McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development. (2014). Strategic mandate agreements. Retrieved from:

Muller, J., B. Davies and A. Morais. (2004).  Reading Bernstein, researching Bernstein. London: Routledge Falmer.

Wheelahan, L. (2010) Why knowledge matters in curriculum: A social realist argument. London: Routledge.

End Notes

[1] These distinctions were drawn by the universities themselves, as outlined in Strategic Mandate Agreements submitted to the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (2014) by the province’s post-secondary institutions.