The bachelor of arts was once a distinction that opened the gates to myriad options and rewarding jobs. But the BA's sheen has worn away, to the point where even many of those who choose to complete one see it only as a stepping stone to the degree they really need.
In the last decade and a half, governments and universities keen on promoting accessibility and boosting enrolment flooded the market with BAs. But as the degree became common, employers grew hungrier for students trained with specific skills and ever-more-advanced degrees.
It meant that to get many desirable jobs, students had to do more than just a BA. Though enrolment in many arts and science programs is still rising, BA graduates are a shrinking portion of the university population. Between 1999 and 2009, full-time undergraduate enrolment increased by 40 per cent, but graduate enrolment expanded by 70 per cent as the popularity of master's programs exploded.
There is also concern that not enough of these graduates excel at the liberal arts education's core skills - writing, critical thinking, research ability, social curiosity - for the BA to carry much weight, leaving students feeling obligated to get graduate, professional or college credentials to prove their worth.
"What does a BA get you?" said Ken Coates, dean of arts at the University of Waterloo. "It creates a series of opportunities that would not be there otherwise, and a lot of the students are now coming in with a two-stage process very much in mind."
The good news for new undergraduates, however, is that the financial benefits of a university degree have only risen.
According to research co-authored by Thomas Lemieux, a labour economist at the University of British Columbia, graduates of all bachelor's degrees collectively earned 40 per cent to 50 per cent more than high-school graduates in 2005, a gap that widened since 1980. Meanwhile, in two recessionary years leading up to September of 2010, Canada created 280,000 net new jobs needing a university degree, while shedding 260,000 jobs for those without one, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.
But BAs earn less than those with applied degrees, such as a bachelor of science, Dr. Lemieux said. And a recent study by the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, tracking the region's graduates two years later, showed liberal arts students earned the least and were far less likely to have jobs that require a degree. BA students fare better five years after graduation, but surveys suggest many BA holders go back to school long before then.
Hadia Akhtar, 24, has just finished a BA in political science, economics and French at the University of Toronto. She began applying for jobs in February but found the market "pretty rough" and feels lucky to have landed a six-month internship that will take her abroad and pay her just enough to get by.
"I think [the BA]should be less of a stepping stone toward doing other degrees," she said, adding that she is feeling compelled to apply to graduate programs right away, despite being $35,000 in debt.
The BA, of course, has never been all about employability, but was praised for its inherent value in broadening and challenging young minds. But even that goal has been impacted by large and impersonal lecture-style classes, with little access to busy professors.
"I thought [my degree]would be a lot more than what I was getting from it," Ms. Akhtar said. "It was very unilateral the way we were learning - that's not good in an academic setting. The professor is just throwing out information at us."
Ms. Akhtar considered 80 students a small class for her first three years, a trend she sees "spreading all across Canada."
At some Ontario universities, more than a third of first- and second-year classes now have more than 100 students, according to government data. Higher Education Strategy Associates, which tracks the number of classmates per class at universities across the country through student surveys, estimates a much larger chunk of first-year classes - between 45 and 75 per cent at most large and mid-size universities - have more than 100 students.
While undergraduate enrolments shot up 40 per cent, faculty levels rose only 25 per cent over the same period. Annual statistics from the Canadian Association of University Teachers show there were 23.1 students per professor in 2007-2008, compared with fewer than 17 in 1990-91.
Universities have allowed these ratios to swell in step with growing costs of salaries, infrastructure and research in order to balance budgets - up to a point, teaching more students with the same faculty members boosts general revenues. Tutorials led by teaching assistants have provided those in large classes with small-group discussions, but Ms. Akhtar said even those sessions are getting scarcer as teaching assistants are replaced with more junior grading assistants.
"If we asked to meet with [grading assistants] they would say things like, 'We're not getting paid to meet you. Just send us an e-mail about what you think is wrong with your assignment,' " Ms. Akhtar said.
By contrast, 27-year-old Rylan Kafara said his BA in history at the University of Alberta was "fantastic." But he, too, found early-year classes impersonal, and is grateful that spending a year first at Red Deer College, in small classes, taught him to connect with his professors. He is now working on an MA in history, and hopes to become a professor, but concedes he originally entered the field to get to law school.
"I wasn't any good at math, so I couldn't be an engineer. And I didn't like seeing people hurt, so I couldn't be a doctor. I thought maybe I'd like law," he said.
Having more students attend colleges and universities has become a popular public-policy issue. The Ontario government has promised to fund 60,000 new university and college spaces over five years, citing a burgeoning knowledge economy. The federal Liberals made it a major election campaign promise, with the $1-billion "Learning Passport" that would help ensure if "you get the grades, you get to go."
But Dr. Coates worries policies like these mean schools are accepting too many students who are not ready. Professors often complain quietly that their students don't have the literacy or study habits to stay afloat. Heavier teaching loads also force them to assign less writing and more easy-to-grade tests.
"Undergraduate education has become like high school - it's an entitlement," Dr. Coates said. "A BA was a way of saying, boy, that student is really motivated and interested in the world. And I don't think you can necessarily say the same thing now for all the students, so the degree doesn't carry the same certificate of quality or of character."
Hoping to curb this effect, schools such as U of T and the University of Guelph have created expensive but successful programs that guarantee some small, first-year seminars. And Waterloo added practicality in what Dr. Coates calls the largest program of co-op arts degrees in the world, as well as an arts and business program, which beefs up arts degrees with a suite of business courses taught "from an arts perspective."
At Mount Allison University, a school focused on liberal arts and sciences, president Robert Campbell boasts of small classes and "loads of opportunities for writing, for class participation." But he thinks all universities may have to revisit how many courses they offer, and how many credits students need, to restore some balance.
"Basically, we're avoiding the hard reality that we're spending less and less per unit of output," he said.
Ms. Akhtar wants boosts to government funding to better offset rising enrolment. Dr. Coates thinks schools need to be better at communicating expectations before students arrive, and should offer more career counselling.
Whatever the solution, the BA must change to regain its currency.
"We may be ready for a big, big conversation in universities about how we deliver undergraduate education," Dr. Campbell said.