Record numbers of first-year university students flocked to campus this fall—but that hasn’t stopped nagging questions about the value of a bachelor’s degree. Despite persuasive statistical evidence that graduates find careers related to their studies and earn more than others over a lifetime, Canadian universities are under the gun to demonstrate what it means to have a degree.
Prodded by rising expectations of students, parents, government demands for greater accountability, and a push from within to rethink undergraduate education, Canadian universities are expanding efforts to link academic studies to the “real” world. “We know the [degree]credential has value and that employers are looking at it and making hiring decisions based on the credential,” says Glen Jones, a professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “Universities now are trying to expand the notion of what is associated with the credential that could be helpful to the student, make a better educational experience and yes, that may have down-the-road implications for employability.” In addition to co-op education and internships, universities offer co-curricular records that recognize work-relevant skills, such as communication and leadership, developed through volunteer activities either on- or off-campus.
Some universities have started pilot projects to include résumé writing and career exploration in the curriculum, while others spell out course-level learning outcomes—such as the ability to think critically and work with others—valued by employers. The idea is to help students develop knowledge and skills that will apply whatever their chosen career. “You don’t want to equip students to be bankers; you want to equip them to do whatever they might be inclined to do,” says McMaster University president Patrick Deane, a leading advocate of reforming undergraduate education. His university and others have embraced “experiential learning”—such as undergraduate research projects that offer learning opportunities outside the classroom—as integral to the academic experience.
Melding theory and practice is old hat for professional schools, such as business and medicine, but new as a campus-wide phenomenon. “It’s a relatively recent thing for universities across the board to think in terms of the outcome of the learning process to reasonably equip students for what they want to do,” says Deane.
Since 2002, McMaster’s faculty of social sciences has offered undergraduate research awards to a dozen or so top students. Over the summer, they earn $6,000 to work on a project of their choice, in collaboration with a professor, an experience designed to provide insights into potential careers.
Last summer, fourth-year anthropology student Ana-Maria Dragomir assisted Canada Research Chair and McMaster professor Megan Brickley with an inventory of skeletal remains of soldiers from the Stoney Creek battle of the War of 1812. “It was not just a summer job; it was a life experience,” says Dragomir, who has landed a part-time job with Brickley this fall. “My research over the summer helped me develop a lot of skills that will be transferable regardless of the career I will pursue,” she says.
Increasingly, students draw strong links between a degree and a job. A 2010 survey of first-year students by the 39-member Canadian University Survey Consortium found that future employment ranked highest among eight reasons to earn a degree. In the survey, 43% cited preparation for a specific job while 24% ranked getting a good job as the prime reason to attend university.
So how do universities measure up?
Better than the public realizes, says Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. “The basic premise that the value of a BA is not what it used to be is wrong,” he says, citing census information that shows those with an undergraduate degree will earn, on average, $1.4 million more over a lifetime than others without a post-secondary degree and $1 million more than college graduates.
An overlooked statistics, he adds, is the creation of more than 300,000 new jobs for university graduates in the recent recession compared to the loss of 430,000 jobs for those without post-secondary education.
In Canada, as in other industrial countries, those with a university degree earn significantly more than those graduating from high school or vocational programs. Based on 2008 data, Statistics Canada reports that earnings of Canadian university graduates were 70% higher than those coming out of high school or trades training and 63% higher in country members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. As well, employment prospects also rise with educational attainment. In 2009, Statscan reported an 82% employment rate for adults aged 25-64 with a diploma or degree compared to a rate of 55% for who had not finished high school.
But the rise of degree-granting colleges, the expansion of credit transfers that smooth pathways between higher-education institutions, and college bragging rights about the employability of their graduates has universities honing their pitch.