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OpEd: Students, to a degree, are making lousy education choices

Study shows that the value of a degree is diminishing, and that few students are choosing lucrative fields of study. It's time we took another look at post-secondary education.
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Gord Woodward, August 26, 2013 3:38:06 PM

Ask children what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll hear all the stereotypical choices: fire-fighter, teacher, astronaut, athlete, superhero.

Ask pre-university students what they want to be when they grow up and you get very different answers, many of them seemingly dependent on having a philosophy degree.
So what is it that causes our kids to start life with realistic aspirations (hey, there’s more chance of being a superhero than of getting a well-paying job as a philosopher) only to abandon them when the time comes to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a university education?

It’s a question raised this morning by economists at CIBC World Markets, who released a report showing that “learn more to earn more” is not the guarantee we thought it was. While higher education does tend to lead to better paying jobs, the wage gap between uni grads and everyone else is narrowing.

Most concerning, though, is the report’s finding that too many Canadian students are getting a poor return on their education investment because of their chosen field of pursuit. Like old grey mares (a fitting description of us parents, who foot a good chunk of the bill), their university degrees ain’t what they used to be.

Degrees in law and medicine continue to be tickets to well-paying jobs. People who hold them tend to make back their school costs and then some when they hit the workforce. The report pegs the return to be as much as 25 per cent.

Degrees in liberal arts, on the other hand, are like scalpers’ tickets: overpriced, and getting you a spot at which all you can see is the back of the heads of all the people ahead of you. (There’s a reason a BFA degree has long been derided as a “Bachelor of F*bomb All.”)

How bad is it? Well, according to the highly-paid non-philosophers at CIBC, fine and applied arts grads earn 12% less than high school graduates once their education costs are factored in. Economists call that a “negative return on investment.” (The rest of us call that “the value of my Blackberry stock.”)

This is not to say that we should stop offering humanities studies and instead concentrate on cranking out more lawyers (the very people most in need of learning some humanity). But, for the good of society, we need to change the way we look at post-secondary education.

The report shows that we have too many under-employed and unemployed grads, simply because the degrees they earn don’t qualify them to work in today’s economy.
So here’s a couple of suggestions.

First, recognize that our kids, left on their own, will always choose the path that makes the least sense for their future (like voting NDP). So we parents need to guide them, from a very early age, to an education that will help them throughout their lives (“superhero” being pretty short-term work). And maybe even tie our financial support for their university studies to that goal.

Second, universities should only offer degrees in fields that can be linked to a sustainable career. We shouldn’t banish liberal arts, just the paperwork that comes with it. All students should have to complete some humanities courses as part of their degree, to broaden their perspective and enhance their critical-thinking skills.

Because, after all, it’s fine to dream about what you want to be when you grow up. But when you are an adult, as Miley Cyrus proved last night, you really should put a little more thought into it.

Image credit: Thinkstock

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