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?

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