Graduation Blues

Is the traditional liberal arts university education still worth it?

June 12, 2014
by Michael Hlinka

From the May 2014 print edition

It’s spring-time—when hope is supposed to spring eternal. After a long, brutally cold winter (Where’s global warming when you want it?), most of the people with whom I deal professionally (I instruct at one of Toronto’s Community Colleges) are young students, ready to enter the work-force, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  Except what students are facing these days is a very difficult job market—even as the economy is “allegedly” expanding in North America.

I remember television commercials from the 1960s and 70s: “To get a good job, get a good education.” And for most of my lifetime, a college or university degree has guaranteed a brighter future.  There have been numerous studies (always conducted by academics, mind you!) that have quantified the value of those three or four years out of the work-force. The number I’ve heard bandied about suggest that a low-ball estimate is a cool $1 million, which when you think about it, is the difference between a comfortable retirement and one where you’d struggle to get by on your Canada Pension Plan benefits and Old Age Security.

As someone who is within the Belly of the Post-Secondary Education Beast, I am more frequently having serious doubts whether Good Education = Good Job anymore.  There’s a simple reason for this.  It’s supply and demand. When I was growing up,  fewer of us who went on to college and university. I reflect back on my personal experience with my Master’s Degree in Business Administration, the degree that got me to where I am today and that’s cocooning very comfortably in the world of academia. My recollection was that there were about 100 students in the University of Toronto graduating class of 1986. This year, the Rotman School will emit around 275. When I left grad school, Canada’s population was 26 million.  Today it’s 35 million.  You don’t need an MBA to see that the math doesn’t add up! I know one current grad quite well and he told me that as of the end of March, only about one-quarter of his class-mates had found work.  This is not what they bargained for when each of them ponied up $8,000+ in tuition.

I was in my local pub last night, enjoying beer and wings, and roughing out a draft of this column when I overheard an interesting conversation.  One of the servers (a lovely young lady who graduated from a very reputable university with an Arts Degree several years ago) was approached by a happily animated customer/friend who had some great news to share!  I’m guessing that the other young lady was in her late twenties, early thirties.  She had just started on a career trajectory that would eventually one day make her a fully certified school bus driver, a profession (according to her), that could mean that one day she’d enjoy a six-figure salary.

Driving a bus is an honourable profession.  I was surprised that it’s that lucrative—and perhaps it’s not—I’m just relaying an anecdote.  Because what the customer/friend said after that is what really piqued my interest and here I’m able to quote almost verbatim:  “After all that university… after two undergraduate degrees… this is what I’m going to end up doing!”  I couldn’t help but note the irony.  Here is someone who spent years in school, learning about things that have no connection with her eventual career… now she’s part of the system leading this generation down that (perhaps) same road!

On one hand, it’s funny.  On the other hand, there is something a bit tragic about it.  I see too many students leaving these halls burdened with debt loads that will take years to pay off.  Another story:  A couple of Christmas’s ago, my nephew brought his girlfriend at the time to dinner.  She had graduated two years earlier from the University of Toronto with an English degree… and twenty-seven thousand dollars of student debt.  She was working in a sandwich shop making thirteen dollars and fifty cents an hour.  How does anyone get by on that wage, let alone retire debt?

I know what the solution is:  Reduce the number of students admitted into programs like History and English—and even Commerce. If there were fewer positions, it would first of all encourage excellence in the public school system, rather than the mediocrity that masquerades itself as “inclusiveness”.  The truly gifted students—and by that I mean the top 10 percent in programs that lead directly to employment—should go to School on full scholarships.  Everyone else should be required to pay half, with the State picking up the other half.  This would encourage efficiency in a what is currently a bloated system. Because what we’re doing now is good for those like me who are part of the Education Establishment… it doesn’t serve our youth.