Painting in Black and White: University versus College Education

I hate it when the news paints things in black and white.

I admit that I, too, have occasionally presented a one-sided argument and expected the world to accept my ideas without a squeak of protest. I suppose my hope has always been that someone would call me out on my assertions and we would then engage in a lively debate over the ins-and-outs of the issue.

In this particular posting, I’m focusing (as usual) on education and the recent flurry of debate over a college versus a university education. I’ve talked about this issue fairly recently (see: “Yet Another Diversion: College, Skills, and Work“) and want to revisit it in light of some new information. Here I will concede that it is useful to have a university education (or, realistically, any kind of post-secondary credential), but then outline some of my concerns with the current state of education in Ontario.

The Council of Ontario Universities (COU) has responded to media claims that university is not a pathway to employment by producing a 33-page report – you can download a PDF copy of the report here. Proponents of the university experience have been ‘feisty’, according to some media reports, in their treatment of the college versus university debate. Max Blouw, COU Chair and President of Wilfrid Laurier University, explains that the report uses “empirical data” to “debunk anecdotal reports about unemployed and underemployed university students” (see the full press release from February 25th, 2014, here).

Similarly, Cecilia Brain (senior policy analyst with COU) wrote this article for the Globe and Mail arguing pro-university and anti-college sentiments. Cecilia also argues that we should not be creating policy around the assumed shortage of skilled trades in Ontario because it is uncertain how many jobs will be available in this field into the future (Brain, February 24th, 2014). In fact, Cecilia notes that it is now harder to find a job as a tradesperson than it was four years ago (Brain, February 24th, 2014).

Thankfully, it’s not all mud-slinging between these two contenders for student enrollment. In a recent Toronto Star article, Linda Franklin, president of Colleges Ontario, argues that comparing salaries and employment rates between university and college is not a productive debate – instead, “[t]he discussion we need to be having is how to marry post-secondary skills more closely to those employers need” (Brown, February 24th, 2014). I could not agree more. Harmonizing courses, sharing learning strategies, and creating cognitive bridges between college and university would allow students an incredible diversity of options for building their future careers (Brown, February 24th, 2014).

To return to the COU’s report, here are the key findings about the earning and work status for Ontario’s university graduates:

  • Between 2002 and 2012, employment growth among university graduates was 49%, compared to only 30% for college graduates (University Works, 2014, pg. 9).
  • The share of total employment for those with university degrees rose from 23% in 2002 to 30% in 2012 (University Works, 2014, pg. 10).
  • Unemployment rates for university graduates are low. (In 2012, college and university students had a comparable unemployment rate of 6%) (University Works, 2014, pg. 11).
  • Employment rates for university graduates saw a 2% decline in 2012; college graduates saw a 2.6% decline (University Works, 2014, pg. 12).
  • The demand for university education is growing – over 10 years, the number of university graduates has increased 53% (University Works, 2014, pg. 14).
  • Over a 40 year period, a university graduate earns an average $915,840 more than a college graduate (University Works, 2014, pg. 15).
  • Employment growth has increased for those with a university degree aged 25 to 29; employment increased 35% for those with bachelor’s degrees; 68% for those with Master and PhD-level education; in contrast, college graduates have seen an 11% increase in employment (University Works, 2014, pg. 15).
  • University graduates between 25 and 29 years of age saw their share of total employment rise to 37.8% in 2012 a 7% increase over 2002 (University Works, 2014, pg. 19).
  • In 2010, 86% of university students were employment within six months of graduation. The employment rate for college graduates was 83% six months after graduation (University Works, 2014, pg. 22).
  • After the 2008 economic crisis, youth employment suffered, but by 2012 university graduates’ employment was 21% higher than before the crisis, the highest increase by educational attainment (college employment increased by only 1% after 2008)(University Works, 2014, pg. 23).
  • Six months after graduation, 73% of university graduates said their work was closely (47%) or somewhat (26%) related to their skills acquired in university. These numbers are lower for college students (University Works, 2014, pg. 25).
  • The average salary for university graduates who work full time is $42,668 six months after graduation; for college graduates, it is $33,061 for full time work six months after graduation (University Works, 2014, pg. 27).

What these statistics tell me, essentially, is that both university and college graduates fare better in economic recessions and long-term income forecasts than high school graduates. The stats also suggest, comfortingly, that those with university degrees are not bound to work in fields totally unrelated to their area of study in school and should not be overly anxious about their future employment prospects.

Further, I’m relieved to announce that the statistics cover the period from 2002 to 2012, some of the worst years of the recession. I had feared, when I first saw these claims, that the statistics would be vastly out of date and thus inaccurate in the current economic climate. I am also fairly confident that the COU report thoughtfully compiles multiple sources of data to present employment and unemployment rates – though how these data were gathered by Statscan, and how accurately they portray real life, is another issue entirely (Grant, February 17th, 2014).

Despite these promising statistics, I have several concerns about the state of education in Ontario. First, university tuition is rising exponentially – forcing poor students out of higher levels of education or causing them to take on greater levels of debt (Habib, September 11th, 2013). Students in Ontario are paying the most in tuition, with average fees (in current dollars) increasing from $1,464 in 1990-91 to $6,348 in 2012-13 with an expected increase to $7,437 in 2016-17 (Habib, September 11th, 2013). A university is still a business, after all, recruiting students for better access to their tuition dollars. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives notes that, as a result, “students are increasingly having to turn to loans, grants and bursaries, tax credits and loans forgiveness to work their way toward a post-secondary education” (Habib, September 11th, 2013).

Students graduating from a four or five year education program will struggle to find reasonably priced housing in Canada, start a family, purchase a car, pay off student debt, and save for retirement. Even if their earnings meet or exceed the figures predicted in the COU report, these individuals will be and will remain Generation Squeezed. To exacerbate matters, Canadians under 45 years of age will see very little in government support, even while the “Federal Budget 2014 phases in an extra $12-billion in annual spending on retirees” (Kershaw & Swanson, February 19th, 2014).

The poverty line in Canada for a single person in 2014 is sitting at $23,000 – only $10,061 above the full time wage of a recent college graduate and $19,668 above the full time wage of a recent university graduate according to the COU report (University Works, 2014, pg. 27). This poverty line has risen with inflation since 2009.

University students – who may do upwards of six years of education to obtain a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree – delay their entry into the job market in the hope of greater wages in the future. However, the combination of high housing and living costs along with tuition debt means that they are unlikely to earn enough to start a family until after 30 years of age (termed as the “Failure to Launch” phenomenon).

Of course, the cost of education won’t be a struggle for students from wealthy families or the growing number of international students. These two demographics may comprise the future educational landscape in Canada as income inequality fluctuates across the country.

Above and beyond the financial side of education in Ontario, I would also like to highlight here the learning-based failures of universities in particular. I can speak with some authority on this subject – in my six years of university, I went from being a student (one of my fourth-year, graded projects was to learn to juggle) to working with the Teaching Fellow in my department and assisting professors as a Teaching Assistant.

Professors are often more focused on research than teaching. They sometimes do not take an interest in pedagogical approaches, and as a result can be inept at communicating with student audiences. Active or experiential learning is a buzzword that flits around the university halls without making any real impact in the classroom. This obviously does not apply across the board – some professors are also wonderful teachers – but it is a significant and pervasive problem. In January 2011, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. They concluded that: “a significant percentage of undergraduates are failing to develop the broad-based skills and knowledge they should be expected to master” during their years in higher education (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2011). Of course, the failure of teaching in university classrooms may also have to do with the rise of technology use in the classroomlazy students, and massive class sizes (resulting in a lack of individual attention paid to each student).

In response to rising tuition costs and the limited potential to actually learn something in higher levels of education, youth in the United States are suggesting that we “just say no to college“. I imagine that many people in Canada are expressing similar sentiments.

Personally, I believe in the statistics which suggest having a university and/or a college education can better prepare you for the working world and put you on the right track for a long-term, sustainable income. To summarize, I am troubled about the following elements of education in Ontario:

  • The antipathy between some university and college institutions and their failure to provide joint programming for students.
  • Rising university tuition.
  • The fact that higher tuition levels could force students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to avoid higher levels of education entirely or take on greater loads of debt.
  • University students having to chose between housing, children, and savings when entering the job/housing market with some level of debt.

While every student and recent graduate may feel some level of anxiety about these quarrels and statistics, a lively and vigorous debate should help to outline our future as a generation of young thinkers. Join a platform like Generation Squeeze or make your voice heard in other ways – your educational and financial future is at stake.

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