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brian lee crowley

Universities ought to be held to account for their claim that they better prepare students to succeed economically.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Student debt and education savings plan. These two issues are on the minds of many Canadians this week as universities roll into another academic year. Many students are contemplating the debt load they will take on to earn their degree, while parents weigh the forgone income that goes into savings plans for postsecondary schooling.

This is a good time, then, to examine whether the investment pays the return that universities say it does. Borrowing money to eventually earn more makes sense, but as the last recession drove home, returns may disappear while debt remains.

There isn't enough room here to look at the full range of costs and benefits of a university education, but there is time to look at two. Let's start with the argument that universities are uniquely capable of equipping people to succeed economically, to become desirable professionals and employees who earn a good, secure income.

Graduates, as university presidents argue, earn at least $1-million more over the course of their working lives than non-graduates. This, however, is only an average, misleadingly masquerading as a general rule. Far too many grads don't even come close.

The idea that university best equips a person to be a successful worker is a "testable proposition" – a discoverable fact. Oddly, however, universities often fail to inquire about the job market success of their graduates. This is doubly odd considering how devotedly schools track their former students as potential donors. Could it be that universities benefit from making unsubstantiated claims about their economic impact on students?

The information that does exist often looks only at the performance of a school's graduates and does not count what happens to its dropouts. That's like trying to assess a doctor's competence while ignoring the patients who didn't survive his care. Given the billions of dollars handed over to universities every year by students, parents, donors and governments, schools should be held accountable for this basic piece of information.

U.S. President Barack Obama made many suggestions recently about postsecondary education, such as punishing schools for low graduation rates. Some of his ideas may be questionable, but he is on to something when he says schools should be obliged to furnish data about the job readiness of their graduates. Unlike graduation rates, which can be manipulated by lowering academic standards, a student's job performance depends on decisions by employers, who are independent of universities and are damaged by hiring poorly trained grads.

The time has come to demand this information from Canadian universities. Such information would likely show (as a recent British study did) that the school you attend is only marginally important, but your program of study matters a lot. On the whole, accountants and engineers get jobs; those with degrees in sociology or film studies have a tougher time.

Supply and demand matters as well: The demand for graduates is not infinite, so the huge expansion of university education in recent decades has diluted the earning power of graduates. Surely this is information every student and parent should have in order to be informed consumers of higher education.

Not so fast, say supporters of the status quo, when asked to prove the claim that a university degree confers economic success; they say that to have such crass job market expectations of universities is to misunderstand their noble and non-economic mission to develop young minds.

This, too, is a testable proposition. It is possible to test students' abilities ("cognitive skills") and measure whether four years in the hands of university teachers demonstrably improves the average student's ability to think (full disclosure: I am a recovering academic).

Judging by a study undertaken over several years in the United States, the discoverable fact is, distressingly, that there is little or no such measurable improvement (you can read all about it in a 2011 book, Academically Adrift, by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska). The experience of Canadian students may be different, of course, but it seems exceedingly unlikely and the damning fact is that we don't know.

Academics often fancy themselves as selfless truth seekers in a self-interested world. They would be more credible if they clamoured to shine the spotlight of truth on themselves as well.

Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa.

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