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Sehba Imtiaz 3rd-year architecture student at the University of Toronto photographed at her faculty on George St. on Sept. 23, 2011.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Is a bachelor's degree going to pay off? It's a question students and parents want answered before investing thousands in tuition fees, but Canadian universities can offer no firm guarantee of a return on investment in that expensive piece of paper.

On average, Canadian university graduates do well over a career, earning a hefty premium above those with only secondary education. But nearly one in five – more than any other country in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – still wind up at the low end of the income scale.

Those income outliers are routinely overlooked as universities trumpet the "million-dollar bonus" – the additional amount the average university graduate is said to make over a lifetime compared to a high-school graduate – now up to $1.3-million, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. But huge earning disparities between fields of study, and even within them, betray the fact that the bachelor's degree remains a risky investment, whatever its less-measurable benefits.

"I think people have an oversimplified idea of what [a degree's]going to do for them," said Ken Steele, co-founder of research and consulting firm Academica Group.

The rose-coloured view is based in research from several economists showing bachelor's degree holders collectively earned upward of 40-per-cent more than high-school graduates in 2006. That gap has slowly but steadily widened since 1980 – even in the period since 1995, when universities packed in 57 per cent more students.

Education remains "the best investment you can make," says a recent TD Economics report, with undergraduate degrees netting an average annual return of more than 10 per cent.

But 18.5 per cent of those graduates earn less than half of the country's median income of $37,002 – the highest proportion of any OECD country, and a phenomenon experts struggle to explain.

Meanwhile, data from the federal Department of Finance show that while fields such as business, engineering and mathematics have returned 12 per cent to 17 per cent a year on education's rising up-front costs, rates for disciplines in the humanities and social sciences could be as low as 4 per cent to 6 per cent.

Torben Drewes, a professor of economics at Trent University, believes returns on university degrees will continue to rise overall, but acknowledges students cannot bank on earning an "average" wage.

"The investment is a risk," he said.

Perhaps sensing these disparities, many students are skeptical that the bachelor's degree is worth what it once was. Like Canadians as a whole, they routinely underestimate the typical returns on undergraduate study, partly because they feel the credential has become commonplace. (In fact, only 31 per cent of Canadians aged 25 to 44 have a university degree.)

Noor Shaikh, 17, is a first-year student at the University of Toronto who chose to study life sciences, partly to keep her options open. Two weeks into her degree, she already feels a BSc alone would be too limiting and plans to attend graduate school.

"Undergraduate education is almost the equivalent of what a high-school degree used to be – almost everyone goes to university," she said.

Still, many undergrads like Ms. Shaikh say they never considered any other path.

Mr. Steele thinks "students are being oversold on the idea of university, and some people are going purely out of a desire to earn a bump in income."

"There are these alternative pathways of apprenticeship or college that are undervalued," he said.

Before entering art history and architecture at the University of Toronto, Sehba Imtiaz, 19, considered college as an option that could satisfy her desire for hands-on learning.

"But I didn't end up doing that because I really wasn't sure of my prospects after I would finish college," she said.

In the short term, McMaster University economics professor Arthur Sweetman is betting average returns on education will go down "ever so slightly" as large cohorts graduate into a soft job market. But any dip will be insignificant beside ongoing gaps between students in different disciplines and with varying abilities.

"It's clear that there are many people who go to postsecondary – 10 or 20 per cent – that really don't have wonderful labour-market outcomes," Dr. Sweetman said.

"Of course, some of them go off and do things which are morally uplifting and they're very happy. And some of those people go off and do things where they're just very unhappy."