Herb O’Heron, the director of research and policy analysis at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, recently penned a very informed column in University Affairs titled “A university degree remains a valuable investment.” Despite O’Heron’s obvious bias in the debate surrounding this issue, one of his claims—that university graduates are afforded a significant income advantage compared with high school graduates—is rather indisputable. The statistics speak for themselves: as of 2005, according to the Bourdat, Lemieux and Riddell study, a male with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn on average 50 percent more than a high school graduate; the advantage for women is even greater.
Having said that, as a working professional, I am less concerned with the amount of money I make and more concerned with intellectual stimulation, fulfillment from a meaningful day of work, and the professional growth opportunities I receive as a result of my employment. When I was a student, I looked for comparable things: unique experiences, development of my communication abilities, and cultivation of my social and collaboration skills, among other things. I know for a fact that this is what many students are seeking right now as they complete their degrees. These “add-on” skills to a B.A. or B.-whatever are, in my opinion, what truly make a university degree worth completing. Critics who solely focus on whether or not a degree guarantees a graduate’s immediate employment are missing the point and, I would argue, have a very narrow conception of post-secondary education’s return on investment.
Indeed, O’Heron correctly posits that “income is not the ultimate motivation for all students.” I work year round with hundreds of students through student engagement, development and orientation programs, and I have yet to hear one student say that the reason they’re studying is because they want to be wealthy. I have never heard a student say, “Thank you for this opportunity; my experience in this activity is going to boost my salary ten-fold!” No, what I have observed is that, more than anything, students appreciate rich, complementary social and academic experiences that contribute to their personal growth, professional development, and self-realization and awareness.
Universities are increasingly giving students practical opportunities to combine classroom learning with real-world engagement—through robust student engagement initiatives, classroom innovation and increased emphases on learning outcomes in student affairs work. In addition, universities are where students go to become thoughtful, civic-minded citizens with critical thinking skills, an understanding of their world and a high-degree of social intelligence—all traits that should appeal to any organization or employer.
In a recent Higher Education Strategy blog, Alex Usher wrote that “education is a social activity.” He continued, “the creation of human capital involves rubbing elbows.” Though Usher was talking about the benefits of the current institutional model of face-to-face teaching in tangible classrooms versus technologically-based online courses, his points are actually applicable to the idea that universities have any value at all. Universities, in a few words, are centres for human development. And what students will gain from their experience at university—through courses, exchanges, co-op, participation in clubs and societies, social events and community service learning initiatives, among other things—can’t necessarily be quantified. However, this does not mean that what students are getting—beyond the letters next to their name—doesn’t have any intrinsic value.
In my humble opinion, it’s difficult to calculate a concrete return on investment for something in which the level (and type) of investment varies so incredibly from one person to the next. In my estimation, at least when it comes to time and effort, students who pursue post-secondary education will get back what they give. And for those that give, the returns will be infinite.