Going to university is like standing on the edge of your life—one of many edges, we later discover. It’s an optimistic moment, especially if you believe Oscar Wilde when he said that the basis of optimism is sheer terror. Students have to figure out not only where to go, but more importantly and subtly, where they belong—the “goodness of fit,” as one of our experts described it. We parents have to stand aside (okay, not too far aside) and let them choose, negotiating our own desires and fears alongside theirs. We hand them off to their professors, who take on the daunting task of literally educating our darlings—roomfuls of ambitious, cocky, nerve-wracked kids—to become the very best and smartest versions of themselves. Meanwhile, we all look to the leaders of our universities, presidents from the University of Victoria to the University of Prince Edward Island, to navigate and define what it means to be an institution of higher learning in Canada in 2010. And while we’re on it, just what is the purpose of a university education today—to expand your mind? Get a job? All in all, it’s a lot to think about.
Which is where Maclean’s comes in. For 20 years, we have been bringing together parents, presidents, professors and prospective students in a conversation about education. This, the 20th anniversary issue of our university rankings, is our biggest and most ambitious edition ever. Our goal is not just to be the most valuable resource in the country—and we are that—but also to personalize the university decision by making it as easy as possible; everything you need to make up your mind is right here in one place. It’s not a cheap decision, either: a four-year degree in Canada now costs about $60,000. On the other hand, university graduates earn an average of 75 per cent more over their lifetime than non-graduates, and have a substantially higher employment rate. Not bad, as investments go.
The same might be said of the decision 20 years ago to launch Maclean’s first-ever rankings issue. “At the time, universities were the most closed, secretive public institutions in the country,” says former Maclean’s editor Kevin Doyle, who created the university rankings. “There was so little information available, parents and students had no idea how to go about selecting a university.
The first rankings, published in October 1991, stirred a public debate and began a process that had a revolutionary impact on the schools themselves, says Doyle, who recently retired as executive director of communications and public affairs at the University of Windsor. “Universities have changed because of this. They’ve come to treat students as clients to be sought after and cultivated.”
Sen. Linda Frum agrees. The subject of this week’s interview and the author of her own guide to universities in 1987, she recalls her university experience. “I attended McGill University in the early ’80s, a period when a hostile separatist government was starving the institution of funds. Back then, the suggestion that the school would one day be rescued by a $750-million fundraising campaign financed by Anglo alumni would have sounded fantastical. The idea of a McGill principal as governor general? Outright delusional. And yet both have happened. The once-battered university has returned gloriously to the centre of Canadian life”—and to the top of our rankings in their category for the sixth year in a row. In the same time period, the annual rankings issue has become Maclean’s most-anticipated single issue of the year and an important franchise in its own right. We like to think that Maclean’s had a role in the emergence of McGill and other universities across the country as leaders in the golden age of university education we now live in.
Which is an optimistic thought, isn’t it? There’s a lot of optimism in this issue, in fact, starting on the cover with the thousand-watt smile of Deanna Jarvis, a student at the University of Guelph. Being a mother myself, with a son in university and a daughter on her way, it’s the mother’s hopes expressed in this issue that I keep thinking about. Johanna Schneller, on the now-commonplace university road trip with her daughter Hayley, writes: “My eyes kept filling with tears, not because I’m hormonally challenged, but because the belief that one should dream as grandly as possible moved me. “
And then there’s Frum, who has nightly dinner-table conversations with her teenage twins about where they’ll choose: “I love my kids, like all moms love their kids, and I’m desperate for them to make the right choice. Although now I know that there are a lot of right choices. You can have a great time in a dozen different places. Even though you only get to choose one, it’s hard to get it spectacularly wrong.” The gleam of the future is in their eyes. Just look at Deanna.