The eroding value of an undergraduate degree

EXCERPT “What’s Wrong With University: And How to Make It Work for You Anyway”


From a purely market-driven perspective, the value of post-secondary education has taken a beating lately. The loss runs two ways. First, the price tag for the education is shooting way up. Second, the market value of that education in terms of earning potential is eroding. It isn’t that post-secondary education is less important in today’s employment market, perhaps quite the reverse, but as more and more students acquire the education, the earning power of the degree alone declines. If everyone has got one, even if everyone paid dearly for it, the distinction conveys no advantage. Of course we aren’t at that extreme quite yet, but we are definitely moving in that direction.

For anyone concerned about the future earning power of a degree this is obviously a frustrating situation. There doesn’t seem to be an alternative in sight, however. In the States, with their expensive private institutions, there appears to be at least the opportunity to purchase exclusivity, even if the price tag comes in the tens of thousands of dollars per year. Some advocate for a similar move in Canadian education, and deregulated tuition, where it exists, is a definite first move in this direction. But for now, at least, there isn’t any guaranteed chance to buy your way into exclusivity. Unless, of course, you want to go study in the United States.

At the same time that the earning value of the degree is eroding, and the cost to acquire it climbing, the government is caught in a situation where it has to justify ballooning student debt. And so we get the official line that it’s still a good investment. According to most statistics, the investment in undergraduate education, even at today’s tuition and in today’s job market, eventually pays off. And that’s probably accurate. It doesn’t stop students from feeling shafted, compared to previous generations of graduates, but considering the direction things seem to be heading, we’re still all better off than students will be ten years from now, so it’s hard to put that complaint into proper perspective until we see how bad things get. Of course the major problem with that “still profitable” argument is that it assumes the profit motive. What about those who have other motives?

The problem that follows from the cost of education is this overwhelming need to justify the cost. Statistics that show a university degree eventually pays off may placate vocational and certification students, to a point, but what about those students looking for pure learning, or else those seeking personal growth? Well, many would answer that regardless of motive those students are still going to graduate and get jobs one day, so the earning potential of the degree is still important and justifies the cost. Which is true. But it ignores what’s happened to the education itself.

Universities have moved heavily into territory typically considered the domain of vocational schools, colleges, and similar institutions. More and more they are marketing programs that are directed at specific jobs. These programs are in demand, and so schools continue to innovate, providing more programs of this nature. But why this sudden demand? It would be absurd to treat this new drive for practical education as a separate and incidental trend. Students are driven more and more to seek practical education as a sort of safeguard. When it’s costing you so damn much it had better be practical. Who wants an unmarketable degree with a $25,000 debt to show for it?

The reasoning behind making education more marketable appeals to certification and vocational students, but university is an integrated whole. So all students end up on the receiving end of this new focus on practical education — and the not-so-subtle message, if you read between the lines, that education for its own sake is rather frivolous. It’s one thing when the various functions of university seem to get in each other’s way. It’s quite another thing when the government itself, through funding priorities and attached justifications, suggests the only right reason to get an education is to get a good income out of it.

It isn’t that the government doesn’t appreciate the value of pure learning. It isn’t that the government doesn’t appreciate the value of citizenship and life lessons. But when it comes time to justify the skyrocketing costs of education and a lack of political will to fund it better, no provincial government wants to acknowledge the social good of higher education. A focus on the social good implies a public obligation to fund it. A focus on the personal gain implies every reason in the world to load the cost on the individual. And so we continue to move in this direction, and the focus on investment and return becomes more and more accepted in public discourse.

Excerpted from “What’s Wrong With University: And How to Make It Work for You Anyway”, © 2007 by Jeff Rybak. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press. The book is available here.

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