Today's Degree: Buyer Beware

Too many college students are spending a fortune on courses with no relevance to their future careers.

By Crawford Kilian 5 Feb 2004 |

Crawford Kilian was born in New York City in 1941. He was raised in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and was educated at Columbia University (BA '62) and Simon Fraser University (MA '72). He served in the US Army from 1963 to 1965, and moved to Vancouver in 1967. He became a naturalized Canadian in 1973.

Crawford has published 21 books -- both fiction and non-fiction, and has written hundreds of articles. He taught at Vancouver City College in the late 1960s and was a professor at Capilano College from 1968 to 2008. Much of Crawford's writing for The Tyee deals with education issues in British Columbia, but he is also interested in books, online media, and environmental issues.

Reporting Beat: Education, health, and books

Crawford's Connection to BC: Though he was born in New York City, one of Crawford's favourite places is Sointula, a small town off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

Twitter: @crof

Website: H5N1

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Student protests about rising tuition costs have become almost a seasonal event. Of course I support the students; access to post-secondary education is critical not only for young people but for us in the older generation whose retirement will depend on the skills and productivity of young workers.

I worry about tuition costs in another way as well: Too many students are spending a fortune on courses that have little or no relevance to their future careers.

My specialty has always been in college career programs, training students for jobs in particular fields. It's not as prestigious as teaching university-transfer courses, but even workplace writing requires critical thinking, analytical ability, and logical argument. I've taken considerable pride in my students' success. They really did go out and get jobs.

But increasingly often, I bump into former students who are now working in an utterly unrelated field, or who've gone back to university for an academic degree. Somewhere along the way they'd lost interest in their original career plans, or the jobs just hadn't been there after all. Something was going wrong. Was it our fault as teachers, or the students'?

Two of five training for phantom jobs

Students have trusted our advice more than they should have. We told them a degree or diploma should lead to steady, well-paid, full-time work. But recent post-secondary grads have found lower rates of full-time employment, the pay is not as good as it once was, and a startling number aren't getting the jobs they've trained for.

This trend was clearly established in a StatsCan survey of 1995 college and university graduates compared to the class of 1986, and I see no evidence that the trend has reversed. Two years after graduation, the class of 1995 saw highest rates of full-time employment among college graduates: just 70 percent, compared to 67 percent for university graduates and 66 percent for trade-vocational graduates.

Moreover, this 70 percent rate of employment was a sharp fall from the class of 1986, which in 1988 was 82 percent fully employed.

StatsCan found that by 1997 the education-job fit had improved for university graduates while declining for college grads. But even there, the best fit was in the health professions: only 72 percent for the class of 1995. In B.C., 1995 college grads reported that only 60 percent of them were in full-time work closely related to their education--and the Canadian average was only 65 percent.

In other words, two out of five B.C. college students were wasting their time and money in their particular programs. Three out of ten university grads in the health professions were equally misguided, and the fit was even worse in other fields.

Median earnings of grads decreased

Despite the poor fit between school and work, benefits to graduates are certainly real, and they do make life pleasanter. But they're not what they used to be; median earnings of university graduates decreased between 1986 and 1997.

According to the 2001 census, Vancouver residents with just high-school graduation earned an average of $27,000 in that year. Meanwhile those with a college certificate or diploma earned $35,388; those with a trades certificate or diploma earned $35,418. And those with a university certificate, diploma or degree earned an average of $46,016.

An annual income gap of $19,000 between grade 12 and a BA is a considerable motivator. Over a 40-year working life, it amounts to $760,000--three-quarters more than a grade 12 graduate will earn. But in the early 1990s, the gap had been even wider: $850,000. In other words, the growing number of post-secondary graduates has made them cheaper to hire--especially for low-skill jobs that many new BA's are desperate enough to take.

That may help to explain another trend: the move toward working part-time while pursuing higher degrees. In the university class of 1986, only 6 percent were seeking advanced degrees in 1988; in 1997, 13 percent of the class of '95 were doing so.

Who should pay? South Korea vs. Sweden

Despite their worsening job prospects, B.C. students are expected to invest more and more in their own education.

According to StatsCan, in 2003 Canadian students' tuition fees covered 19 percent of the cost of tertiary education (in B.C. it was 18 percent). That's still relatively cheap compared to the US or Japan. But consider the percentages in a number of developed countries, as reported by the OECD:

Sweden              0%

Netherlands       13%

Austria               1%

Greece             14%

Denmark             3%

Canada             19%

Norway              3%

Italy                 20%

Iceland              5%

Ireland              24%

Turkey               6%

UK                    27%

Hungary             6%

Spain                28%

Portugal             8%

Australia            28%

Czech R.            8%

USA                  38%

France              11%

Japan                58%

Mexico              11%

S. Korea            63%

How can relatively poor countries like Turkey and Portugal charge their students so little for post-secondary? Perhaps their systems are so small that the subsidies aren't that hard for taxpayers to bear.

But countries like Sweden, Austria, Denmark and Norway are advanced industrial nations with economies like ours that depend on highly educated people. They see post-secondary as a social investment, not a private subsidy; in effect, they are hiring students to become more productive and resourceful citizens.

Our post-secondary schools, meanwhile, are beginning a process that is already well advanced in countries like South Korea: a kind of Darwinian struggle for existence. The Korean researcher Dr. Kim Soo-Yeon has studied enrolment trends in her country's colleges and universities, and has learned the colleges in particular are finding it increasingly hard to recruit and retain students.

If they must pay such high fees, Korean students want to get their money's worth by transferring as soon as possible to the most prestigious universities, rather than staying in the college system. A disturbing number who can't qualify for such transfers are simply dropping out. Since Korean colleges depend so greatly on student fees, Dr. Kim says, they face severe contraction or even shutdown.

Diminishing returns on investment

For the foreseeable future, Canadian students face diminishing returns. They must spend more (and borrow more) to get jobs that pay less, and they must take longer to qualify for careers that may last only a few years--if they enter those careers at all.

Maybe it's not such a big deal. If 30 to 40 percent of post-secondary graduates don't go into the fields they've trained for, perhaps that's an acceptable wastage rate. Even in career programs, they've picked up some general skills.

But surely we can reduce that wastage, at least in part, by better screening and advising. B.C. colleges and universities are under pressure to maximize the number of warm bodies in classrooms. Failure to enroll the quota assigned by Victoria will lead to budget cuts, program cancellations, and faculty layoffs. Yet the best we can do for some aspiring students is to turn them away, rather than take their money and then flunk them.

This is not a popular view among educators. Rather than face losing our own jobs, we'll continue to accept students who are unprepared for post-secondary and unsuited for the careers they think they want. To admit such students is ethically doubtful at best, and--at ever-higher tuition fees--an outright swindle at worst.

Crawford Kilian, a frequent contributor to The Tyee, has taught at Capilano College in North Vancouver since 1968. He is the author of 2020 Visions: The Futures of Canadian Education (Arsenal Pulp Press).  [Tyee]

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