What’s in a degree?

New study shows employment value of university degree is measured by program choice


By Leah Kellar, Staff Writer

How many degrees shy of expected earnings is a university graduate than a high school graduate? According to a new study that is challenging the status quo about the value of university education, the answer varies widely and depends on the degree.

A recent report from CIBC World Markets shows the value of a university education is decreasing, particularly for Canadian students in the social sciences and humanities.  A university graduate making less than a high school grad on average seems unlikely, but according to recent data from Statistics Canada, university graduates in many of these disciplines earn less than the national median income—just below $30,000.

According to CIBC World Markets economists Benjamin Tal and Emanuella Enenajor, the cost of a bachelor’s degree has increased by 20 percent since the late 2000s, while the unemployment rate among university graduates dropped to 1.7 percentage points below that of high school graduates. It turns out that the employment gap between the two tiers of education are sharply decreasing despite conventional wisdom that the value of higher education is increasing in a more technologically-savvy, progressive and competitive marketplace. Researchers point out that it’s not a university degree in general that has lost value, but rather the type of degree.

Astonishingly, the gap is even wider between social sciences and arts programs, typically shown on one side of the dividing-line, and in-demand business, engineering, and science programs on the other. On average, graduates in engineering, computer and physical sciences make 86 per cent more than a high school graduate, whereas graduates in the social sciences and humanities will make 38 per cent more and 23 per cent more, respectively. In stark contrast, fine and applied arts students will make 12 per cent less than their high school graduate counterparts.

“Can someone who has a BA in history make less than somebody who [only] went to high school? It’s very possible,” Tal says.

In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Tal noted that part of the reason for this is that high school graduates are open to job opportunities that a university graduate may not have considered or targeted their resume toward due to a narrow job search focused on their university degree.

The study also notes a downward trend when comparing the employment rates between university graduates and college graduates. University graduates sit at a mere 0.7 percentage points above their college-graduating peers.

So what can students in the social sciences and humanities do to increase their earning potential? Tal believes the answer lies with universities incorporating more practical components to their programs so that students may develop skills that cater to particular careers.

At the end of the day, students entering university need to be aware of what to expect: despite what we know about the intrinsic value of education, when it comes to the job market, not all university degrees are created equal.

Bio: Leah Kellar is a freelance journalist and photographer living in the GTA. When she is not writing or snapping photos she can be spotted outdoors as a multi-coloured neon flash pounding the pavement or running out on the trail.

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