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education memo

Last week, I tried finding basic information about student outcomes on five university websites: The University of Alberta, York University, McGill, Simon Fraser and the University of New Brunswick. It was not a scientific study, just a rough and random approximation of what an undergrad and their family may do at this time of year, as they are weighing admission offers.

I looked for things like employment rates, starting salaries, the number of graduates who continue their education. (The need for info doesn't stop with undergraduates; potential graduate students are also curious about professorial jobs, percentage of drop-outs, and how many of those who came before them are now getting employee discounts at Target.)

At each site, I spent a few minutes looking at two or three departments and clicking on the button that says "Graduate employment and salaries." Oh, right. That button doesn't exist.

Such information as did exist – rarely – was buried in institutional documents and presented only on a university-wide basis rather than broken out by department. Most departments have posted a document under a "Careers" heading that listed occupations a graduate in the discipline could pursue. Occasionally, faculties included the names of prior students who've gone on to become the Lionel Messi's of that field.

In social science, these kinds of "small n" studies have been replaced by sophisticated statistical analysis that can account for the impact of multiple variables (so goes the claim anyway). Yet when it comes to their own outcomes, the postsecondary institutions themselves have not made that shift.

If university websites are not overly generous with their information, they nevertheless expect students to understand the many routes to admission, the costs of education, the scholarships and loans available and the number of reference letters and extracurriculars required to be considered for admission and financial aid. Data on what you can do to get into your university was plentiful.

Recently, we've had a lot of arguments that the value of a university degree is in decline. The most recent brouhaha is in Alberta: Thomas Lukaszuk, the Advanced Education Minister, has sent letters to the province's postsecondaries asking them to take steps to make their programs relevant to the labour market. The underlying message is that universities are now producing PhDs in grande lattes, and central planning is needed to lead us to a future where chemical engineers and finance quants will be as common as English majors. (Presumably the increase in supply will make the engineers cheaper too.)

Universities may well be right to worry that a bureaucracy setting up goals could erode their autonomy without helping students. And that focusing on jobs detracts from the learning and campus experience. But they don't help their cause when they can't point to statistics we can all see and students can use.

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