It's that season again. Across the country, high-school students and their parents are weighing options – not just which campus to attend, but what to study as well. Faced with rising tuition costs and a challenging labour market, some observers are questioning the value of that bachelor's degree – particularly beyond the health field and "STEM" (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines. A closer look suggests that students may be making sound economic choices for their future – and the future of the country – regardless of what they choose to study.
It's common knowledge that new jobs increasingly demand postsecondary credentials. But what's less well understood is the wide range of those jobs and the educational pathways leading to them. Statistics Canada data on employment by occupational classification show that job growth between 2007 and 2011 was fastest in health-related occupations (over 16 per cent increase) – but was also strong in "art, culture, recreation and sport" (13 per cent), "social science, education, government service and religion" (11 per cent) and "natural and applied sciences" (8 per cent). Emerging jobs, in other words, are drawing graduates from all sides of the campus.
Those jobs in turn fuel income. As a result, postsecondary education is easily among the safest investments in any portfolio. Latest available data (based on the 2006 census) suggest that the average private return on investment in a bachelor's degree – that is, additional income during working years compared to tuition and foregone income while at school – was over 10 per cent for students in the social sciences and humanities. That's only slightly lower than for other fields (the only real outlier was women with health-related degrees, where rates of return were almost 18 per cent). Social rates of return, which consider the full costs of university education rather than just the portion students pay through tuition fees, were even closer between fields, ranging from eight and 11 per cent.
There are, of course, differences among individual specializations. The social sciences and humanities cover a broad spectrum of disciplines, and it's perhaps not surprising that commerce grads tend to fare somewhat better in terms of average income upon graduation than philosophy or anthropology majors. The same also holds for the STEM disciplines, with engineering grads outpacing those studying math or "pure" sciences. But the overall picture is one of strong positive returns to investments in higher education, across all fields.
No degree on its own can be a guarantee of job success. For students, the best advice may be the familiar one: Find something you love, work hard at it, and seize every opportunity for learning. For those involved with postsecondary education and research, the lesson is perhaps more complex. Rather than focusing on what students choose to study, the more important issue may be how they are prepared for the economy and society of tomorrow.
That means addressing a difficult set of questions. Do students at all levels have an opportunity to develop their skills via independent research and/or participation in faculty research grants? How are they mentored and supported by faculty, grad students and advisers? How can they best emerge with a diverse set of capabilities, encompassing not only theory and research methods, but also teamwork, communications, and the ability to make sense of data and evidence? What opportunities are available to apply their skills beyond academia, through internships, co-op placements and community service learning programs? How can they be encouraged to cultivate a broad, global outlook, embracing the world beyond our borders?
It's the way we challenge and address these issues – not the choices students make before hitting that "Apply Now" button – that ultimately will determine the employment future awaiting our graduates.
Brent Herbert Copley, PhD, is vice-president, Research Capacity at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.