Navigating College and University Choices in Canada for Successful Immigration

Immigration Law
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Choosing the right college or university for immigration purposes is a critical step towards achieving your academic and career goals, as well as your long-term plans to settle in Canada. MBLAW, as an experienced immigration law firm in Canada, offers comprehensive guidance to prospective international students. In this article, we aim to analyze the entire immigration pathway through education in Canada. Our goal is to explain the nuances of the immigration process, including how to select the right educational institution, understand the importance of Designated Learning Institutions (DLI), and leverage the Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) to your advantage. By equipping you with the necessary knowledge and strategies, we endeavor to make your journey toward Canadian immigration as smooth and straightforward as possible.

What Are the Differences Between Colleges and Universities in Canada?

In Canada, deciding whether to attend a college or a university depends on several factors, including career goals, the length of the program, cost, and the preferred format of learning.

Colleges in Canada are renowned for delivering practical knowledge and hands-on experience in areas such as trades, technology, applied arts, and health. They offer diploma and certificate programs, and some even provide bachelor’s degrees in applied fields of study. Colleges are generally focused on preparing students for the workforce, with programs tailored to align with current labour market trends and employer needs. They often feature smaller class sizes, which allows for more personalized attention from instructors.

On the other hand, universities place a greater emphasis on academic and professional programs, awarding bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Canadian universities prioritize research, critical thinking, and analytical skills. The curriculum at universities is designed to offer comprehensive training in a specific area of study, while also providing a broad overview of other subjects, to ensure students receive a well-rounded education.

A significant difference between the two is the cost of education, particularly for international students. In 2024, the average cost of attending a college in Canada is expected to be around 18,000 Canadian dollars per year, whereas, at a university, it could be approximately 30,000 Canadian dollars annually. Additionally, colleges are more focused on practical work, while universities concentrate on academic knowledge and research. For those aiming for immigration, selecting a program that allows quick entry into the labor market post-graduation to become a successful and competitive candidate is advisable.

Choosing Between Public and Private Colleges in Canada for International Students

When international students consider pursuing their studies in Canada, a common dilemma they face is choosing between public and private colleges. This decision can significantly impact their educational journey, future career opportunities, and immigration plans.

Cost and Funding

Public colleges in Canada are primarily funded by the government, which often results in lower tuition fees compared to private colleges that rely solely on tuition fees for operation. This difference can make public colleges more accessible to international students from a financial standpoint. Although some private colleges might appear more affordable due to scholarships and grants, public colleges still offer a high-quality education at a subsidized cost, making them an attractive option for students on a budget​​​​.

Educational Quality

Both public and private colleges in Canada offer a wide range of courses and are staffed with qualified instructors. Yet, the expansive course selection and robust infrastructure of public colleges make them highly competitive and capable of delivering an excellent education​​​​.

Career Opportunities and Immigration Prospects

Public colleges have a strong reputation in the Canadian labor market, especially among government sectors, making degrees from these institutions highly valued. International students graduating from public colleges in Canada may find better job prospects and are often given preference in the labor market. Additionally, public colleges provide international students with the opportunity to work part-time during their studies and apply for a Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) afterward. This permit is crucial for those looking to gain Canadian work experience and eventually apply for permanent residency. Private colleges, while offering valuable industry connections and placement opportunities, may not always provide the same level of support regarding post-study work permits​​​​.

Higher Education Levels in Canada: A Guide for International Students


A Certificate program in Canada is designed for short-term education and skill development. It usually lasts for one year or less and is offered at both colleges and some universities. The purpose of a Certificate is to provide specialized knowledge and skills in a specific field. It is ideal for students who wish to quickly enter the workforce or enhance their existing skills. Admission into a Certificate program typically requires high school completion, making it accessible for those with basic education.


The Diploma is a level up from the Certificate and is primarily offered at colleges. With a duration of two to three years, Diploma programs focus on providing practical skills and knowledge for a particular profession. This level of education is suited for students aiming for mid-level positions in industries such as technology, healthcare, and business. A high school diploma is usually necessary for entry into these programs.

Advanced Diploma

An Advanced Diploma extends the learning and training of a standard Diploma, lasting about three years. It offers a more comprehensive study in a particular field, preparing students for specialized career paths or further education. Colleges are the main providers of Advanced Diplomas, and applicants need to have completed their high school education.

Bachelor’s Degree

Bachelor’s degrees are three/four-year undergraduate programs offered by universities. They are designed to furnish students with theoretical knowledge and some practical experience in a wide range of academic disciplines. Bachelor’s degrees prepare students for professional careers or postgraduate studies. Admission requirements include completion of high school, often with specific course prerequisites and grade levels.

Post-Graduate Certificate

Post-Graduate Certificates are specialized programs offered to students who have already completed a degree and wish to gain additional skills in a specific area. These programs typically last for one year and are available at both universities and colleges. They are ideal for career advancement or transition by providing focused expertise. A Bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for these programs, making them suitable for those looking to build on their existing higher education.

Master’s Degree

Master’s degrees are advanced academic programs. Lasting one to two years, these degrees are available at universities and require a Bachelor’s degree for admission. Master’s programs are research-oriented or coursework-based and aim at providing advanced knowledge and skills for professional practice or doctoral studies.

Doctorate or PhD

The Doctorate or PhD is the highest level of academic achievement in Canada. It focuses on original research contributing to the field of study and typically last three to five years and are offered by universities. Candidates must have completed a Master’s degree to be eligible. This level is aimed at individuals pursuing academic, research, or highly specialized professional roles.

The progression through these educational levels in Canada is designed to build upon previous knowledge and skills. International students are encouraged to pursue a level of education that is higher than their current highest qualification to ensure their study permit and visa.

Understanding the Importance of DLIs for International Studies in Canada

It is crucial to note that the selected university and program must be from the Designated Learning Institutions (DLI) list.

Designated Learning Institutions, or DLIs, are schools approved by a provincial or territorial government to host international students. The DLI list is essential for international students wishing to study in Canada, as only those enrolled at a DLI are eligible to receive a Study Permit. This list includes universities, colleges, and other educational institutions authorized to admit international students.

Choosing an educational institution from the DLI list is crucial for several reasons:

  • Legality and Study Permit Eligibility: The primary reason to choose a DLI is to comply with Canadian immigration laws. To apply for and be granted a Study Permit, international students must provide a letter of acceptance from a DLI. Without this, the Canadian immigration authorities will not process the study permit application.
  • Quality of Education: DLIs are recognized by provincial or territorial governments, ensuring they meet specific quality standards in education. This recognition means students can trust the quality of education and the institution’s credentials.
  • Post-Graduate Work Permit (PGWP) Eligibility: Studying at a DLI can also affect eligibility for the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program, allowing students to work in Canada after completing their studies. This opportunity can provide valuable work experience and could lead to permanent residency options in Canada.

New Rules, New Strategies: Preparing for the PAL Requirement in Your Canadian Study Permit Application

The Provincial Attestation Letter (PAL) has become a crucial component for international students applying for a study permit in Canada. This document, issued by the provincial or territorial government where the student intends to study, confirms the alignment of the student’s program with the province’s immigration and labor market needs. The PAL serves as an additional layer of assurance for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) before granting a study permit, ensuring that the growth of the International Student Program is sustainable and compatible with Canada’s educational infrastructure and community resources​​​​.

Who Needs a PAL?

Most post-secondary study permit applicants, including those enrolled in college or undergraduate programs, are required to obtain a PAL. This includes students applying to non-degree-granting graduate programs, such as certificate programs and graduate diplomas​​.
International students planning to study in foundation or associate degrees, English as a Secondary Language (ESL), undergraduate programs of any duration, and undergraduate-level diplomas​​.

Exceptions to the PAL Requirement

Certain categories of students are exempt from obtaining a PAL for their study permit application:

  • Primary and secondary school students (kindergarten through grade 12).
  • Master’s or doctoral degree students, highlighting their contribution to academic research and skilled immigration potential.
  • Visiting or exchange students attending a Canadian institution for a short period as part of a program with their home institution.
  • Holders of an in-Canada study permit or work permit, including those applying for an extension.
  • Family members of study permit or work permit holders in Canada.
  • Students whose applications were received before 8:30 a.m. ET on January 22, 2024​​.

How to Obtain a PAL

Currently, there is no universal procedure for obtaining a PAL, as provinces and territories are developing their processes, expected to be in place by March 31, 2024. For example, Quebec has a unique process involving the Quebec Acceptance Certificate (CAQ), suggesting a model that other provinces may follow. International students are advised to wait until their respective provincial government establishes a policy or system for issuing PALs. Once the requirements are posted by the government on March 31,2024, we will update discuss the requirements in more details.

Impact of PAL on Study Permit Applications

The introduction of the PAL requirement is part of broader reforms aimed at supporting sustainable population growth and enhancing the efficiency of the educational system in Canada. By managing the number of international students according to provincial quotas, Canada aims to preserve the integrity of its educational system and enrich the experiences of international students within the country​​.

Building Your Future in Canada: The Strategic Role of PGWP

The Post-Graduate Work Permit (PGWP) is an open work permit that allows graduates to gain valuable Canadian work experience after completing their studies in Canada.

The duration of the PGWP  validity is linked to the length of the educational program completed by the student. For instance, if a student has finished a one-year educational program, the PGWP will be issued for one year as well. Alternatively, if the educational program lasted for two or three years, the PGWP could be issued for a maximum duration of three years, offering a broader window for graduates to work and gain work experience in Canada.

In 2024, significant changes were made to the eligibility criteria for the PGWP, especially for graduates of university-level programs. Graduates of master’s programs, regardless of whether the program’s duration was one year or longer, are eligible to receive a PGWP valid for three years. This change is exclusive to graduates of university programs, emphasizing the government’s focus on attracting and retaining highly skilled graduates.

Graduates with a three-year work permit have a broader timeframe to secure skilled employment and gain Canadian work experience needed for many immigration pathways. This is crucial because meeting the criteria of immigration programs often requires a minimum amount of work experience, which can be challenging to obtain if PGWP is issued for one year only. Consequently, graduates with only a one-year PGWP face a significant risk of not fulfilling the requirements for immigration programs.

How NOC and TEER Impact Your Canadian Immigration Pathway

It is crucial to consider your future career’s National Occupational Classification (NOC) and its associated Training, Education, Experience, and Responsibilities (TEER) for potential immigration purposes when choosing your education program. The NOC system categorizes jobs based on the type of work a person does. The TEER indicates the skill level of a job, now ranging from TEER 0 (management jobs) to TEER levels 1 (professional jobs that usually require a university degree), 2 (technical jobs and skilled trades that typically require a college diploma or apprenticeship training), 3 (jobs that may require a high school diploma and/or job-specific training), 4 (intermediate jobs that usually call for high school and/or job-specific training), and 5 (laboring and elemental jobs that often provide on-the-job training).

For a successful immigration pathway, it is essential to know which NOC your prospective profession falls into and to identify the TEER category for that profession. However, it is important to note that obtaining a specific profession does not always guarantee a corresponding high TEER category, especially for entry-level positions, which may fall into lower TEER categories.

For instance, management jobs are generally classified under TEER 0. However, if you are aiming for a career in management within the hospitality and tourism sector, you might start in entry-level positions, such as at a reception desk, where the TEER category would be lower, potentially TEER 4 or 5. As a result of lower TEER category, it may limit the number of available immigration pathways.

There are more opportunities and programs available for jobs within TEER categories 0, 1, 2, or 3, acknowledging the expanded opportunities across all skill levels under the revised NOC 2021 system.


In conclusion, selecting the right college or university in Canada for international students is a multifaceted decision that significantly impacts their educational, professional, and immigration outcomes. The choice between colleges and universities, public and private institutions, and the level of education—ranging from certificate programs to master’s degrees—requires careful consideration of one’s career objectives, financial capacity, and immigration aspirations. Prospective students must consider how their education in Canada aligns with the current labor market demands, their eligibility for post-graduation work permits (PGWP), and ultimately, their long-term goals to live and work in Canada.

At MBLAW, we understand the complexities involved in choosing the right educational pathway in Canada that not only meets your academic and career aspirations but also align with your immigration goals.

Colleges in Canada, PGWP, Study in Canada, Study Permit, University in Canada

The Content is current as of its original date of publication, but should not be relied upon as accurate, timely or fit for any particular purpose. Content is provided solely for informational purposes. It is not intended to be legal or other professional advice or an opinion of any kind. You are advised to seek specific legal advice by contacting members of MBLAW (or your own legal counsel) in relation to your specific legal issues.

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