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Who should go to university?

Are too many of us getting degrees?


 

One common refrain in university circles, strangely enough, is that there are too many people going to university. These days, it is said, nearly everyone goes to university, which means that we spend too much, the value of a degree is degraded, grades are inflated, and trades are depleted. Universities, some say, should return to their former status as elite institutions for those who should really be there.

But are there really so many of us going to university? And how do we decide who should go?

To make sense of all this, we should first dispel the wide-spread myth that in Canada today pretty much everyone gets a university degree. The statistics on these things always lag behind the reality to some extent, and the studies are not always perfectly consistent with each other, but, as of 2007, the percentage of the working Canadian population (25 to 64) with a university degree was around 25%, an attainment that put us behind several other similar nations including the United States, and on par with many other industrialized countries such as Australia, the UK, and Japan. A quarter of the population is hardly everyone and is, indeed, about normal for a country like ours.

Further, just as not everyone is going to university, neither is it the case that no one is doing anything else. This study from 2009 shows that while more people are going to university, so too are more people seeking college and trades education. In fact, more people (just over 30%) are getting college and trades education than university degrees (just over 20%), and the trades and college participation rate is increasing about as fast as the university participation rate. So those (including the Prime Minister) who think that the vast majority of Canadians should not be going to university already have their wish.

Still, the perception persists, especially among the university-educated, that there are a lot of students who just should not be there. They feel this way because while they were studying and paying attention in class, they couldn’t help notice others stumble into class late and only occasionally. It was clear that many students are uninterested, unprepared, and, clearly, uninspired. Shouldn’t those people at least be weeded out?

Maybe, but bear in mind that many of them are. Universities have policies that prevent students from failing indefinitely. At a certain point, you simply are not allowed to come back. And a certain number of failures, we should remember, is not necessarily a bad thing. For some, the best thing they can learn in university is that it is the wrong place for them. Or at least, the wrong place for right now. I have had several good students who came to university, failed out, and came back later when they were ready to work. Similarly, some students take a year or two of university to get their intellectual bearings. They struggle in the first year or two and then something clicks into place — they get a key insight or are inspired by a class or a cause — and they succeed in ways no one could have predicted.

This is why we should be very cautious about downsizing universities. Those of us making good salaries thanks to our university training should not be too quick to call for a move towards universities as elite enclaves for those who excelled in high school. Most young people have no idea what they are capable of — that’s part of what young means — and making universities open to as many people as we can is our best way of making sure that everyone gets a chance to discover their potential. Such a strategy means that university faculty must remain vigilant, fight grade inflation, and not give out credits freely as though every student has a right to them. It also means that the public school system has to do better in preparing students to go to university so that they are not overwhelmed when they get there.

Would those people calling for an elite university system feel the same way if they were not already part of the elite?


 

Who should go to university?

  1. Definitely don’t want University to be “elite”, but I did notice grade inflation my last couple years (double co-hort came in my 3rd year), and I am certain it has gotten worse since I finished my original undergrad. Going back to school and getting my BEd last year I noticed a lot of people there who just *should not* have been able to complete their original Bachelors degree let alone be admitted into a BEd program in order to receive another. Makes my BEd seem like a joke since I know of only a couple who failed out (those were mostly stress-related), but many others really should have based on their work.

  2. I agree with Michelle. As a grad student, I saw far too many students who really shouldn’t have been in university. They couldn’t even write a coherent sentence (and I’m not talking about international students here – I’m talking about students who completed all of their high school years in Canada).

    I also saw this out in the working world as an engineer – there were university-educated individuals who seemed incapable of writing anything that made sense! They were also unable to complete basic mathematics without a calculator. Now I realize that those with science degrees might not have had to write a great deal in order to complete their degree, but certainly the ability to write basic sentences should have been necessary. Just as those with an arts degree might not have needed to do any mathematics whatsoever, but surely even an arts graduate should be able to add and subtract without using a calculator? I truly wonder how some of these individuals made it through university.

    Now, I don’t claim that my own English or mathematics is perfect (especially on the internet), but at university or at work, I did display a certain degree of competence.

    I don’t think universities should be “elite” institutions, but I do think far too many students attend university who really shouldn’t be there. I saw far too many of them as a grad student. As I’ve mentioned before in comments on this site, I really like the German education system, that recognizes that not everyone needs to be pushed into a university education. Students are “streamed” into an appropriate school, according to their academic strengths and weaknesses. But you are not locked into a given stream. If you are in a “lower” stream and excel, you can be bumped up to one of the “higher” streams. If you are in a higher stream and are struggling, or realize that it is not for you, you can move to a lower stream.

    Also, as Michelle mentioned, in Ontario at least, the elimination of grade 13/OAC seemed to really affect the quality of students attending university. I was a grad student when the double cohort graduated and I could really see the difference between most of the students who completed grade 13/OAC, and those who only graduated from grade 12. The “old” system, where you could graduate after grade 12 and begin working or attend college, or stay and do grade 13 if you wanted to go on to university, seemed to create students who were much better prepared for university studies. Now part of that may had been the fact that the students who completed grade 13 were, on average, a year older. Whatever the reason, the elimination of grade 13, at least in my experience, brought far too many students to university who did not, and do not, belong there, at least at that point in their lives.

  3. “as of 2007, the percentage of the working Canadian population (25 to 64) with a university degree was around 25%”

    This number tells us nothing about the current situation. What percentage of people under 30 have a degree would be more relevant to your argument.

  4. If you’re so inclined against educated population, maybe you should have gone into trades. Based on cost, education is still a privilege and not a right, despite the claims of numerous students’ unions across Canada. In this sense, they are still elitist institutions. Nonetheless, post-secondary education is still one of the best ways of getting ahead in life.

    Sure, as an undergrad I encountered people who did not care to be there and probably should not be there. If they already lack any work ethic, this will change once they graduate, if they manage to. They will not be admitted into graduate programs.

    I’m also concerned with what you refer to as “devaluation” of BAs. But the solution to that is not to make universities more elitist.

  5. Ktsch, the second study I linked to has some stats on this, though perhaps I should have mentioned them. If you look at the numbers of 18-24 year olds enrolled,it’s still around 25% depending on how you break it down.

    So even among young people, more are going to university, but the vast majority are not.

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