What is a degree worth?
Western’s enrolment rates are staggering. This year campus is teeming with more undergraduate students than ever seen in the university’s 133-year history. Boasting around 26,500 full-time undergraduates, Western has seen enrolment climb by 5,700 since 1996.
Last year, Western’s full-time undergraduates paid more than $100 million in tuition. The question is — what are students getting in return?
Politicians and policy-makers are starting to consider how rising enrolment rates are affecting the quality of education and the value of an undergraduate degree in a workforce saturated with university-educated workers.
“The greater number of students who have an undergrad degree, the more competitive its going to be to get an entry level job, and an entry level job with the kind of pay a student is expecting,” says Meaghan Coker, vice-president university affairs for the University Students’ Council.
“We’ve come to an understanding that a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough and that you must have a second degree to complement yourself and succeed in life.”
In 2005, the Ontario government pledged to invest $6.2 billion by 2009 to boost enrolment rates and improve the quality of post-secondary education in the province. Western increased its enrolment by over a thousand full-time students in the last five years. Now the government projects another 50,000 undergraduate spaces will be introduced to Ontario universities by 2015.
Students, meanwhile, are stuck in the middle, vying to become competitive in the workforce while staying out of debt.
The value of an undergraduate degree depends on what students are looking to gain from it, says Philip Oreopoulos, a visiting professor from Harvard University specializing in the economics of education. Oreopoulous argues that while the material students learn during their undergrad might be useless to a career, the education still distinguishes a graduate from someone without a degree.
“Post-secondary education merely differentiates between those who have it and those who don’t. If obtaining [a degree] is the only difference, it enables employers to consider degrees as equal. Even if the schooling hasn’t done anything to enrich you, it allows employers to distinguish you from those who didn’t attend university, and that is advantageous.” Oreopoulos says.
While an undergraduate degree will differentiate a candidate from their non-degree holding counterparts, Oreopoulos questioned what skills are really being learned in today’s university classes.
“There’s a lack of motivation and intellectual curiosity among students. University is what students make it out to be and there are plenty of opportunities that I see less and less students taking advantage of. It’s hard to say if they’re learning anything,” he says, noting if students put in minimal effort they could reap great academic rewards.
As enrolment levels at universities continue to mushroom, the curriculum needs to be restructured, according to Coker, to better teach a growing and changing student body.
“Although there’s been challenges in understanding what students leave [university] with, it’s clear that we need to teach students in innovative learning environments. There needs to be an investment into changing the way we teach at universities,” Coker says.
While the value of the degree is under scrutiny, its necessity is not. According to David Molenhuis, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, a rapidly changing economy makes an undergraduate degree essential to a person’s future prosperity.
“Post-World War II, the economy had changed where more and more individuals required high school as mandatory minimum education for participating in the economy and job market,” Molenhuis notes, adding that 70 per cent of current jobs require some form of post-secondary education.
“We’re seeing history repeating itself. The undergraduate degree is becoming the new high school diploma,” he continues.
In an era where post-secondary education is vital to success to most careers, it’s even more imperative for graduates to differentiate themselves and find value in their degree.
For some, added competitiveness may come from more education after their undergrad, such as a master’s degree. Since the 1996/97 school year, graduate enrolment at Western has grown by 2,400 students, now encompassing 17 per cent of all full-time enrolment at Western.
“If everyone had a master’s it would be the same problem at a different degree,” Coker says.
Coker suggests using extracurriculars and out-of-class experiences to differentiate yourself and add value to your bachelor’s degree.
“Ultimately it’s beyond the classroom learning. And there is a lot of focus on classroom learning and the paper you walk away with, but students who are involved in extracurriculars know that those experiences are what really bring value to your degree,” Coker says.
“Those experiences are invaluable towards the type of skills in leadership that you can develop, so in addition to the classroom we need to put emphasis on expanding involvement opportunities, internships, co-ops, and service learning – those types of experiences are valuable in this growing undergraduate economy.”
While it may be difficult to judge the value of a bachelor’s degree, it is evident that an educated population has a positive effect on Canadian society and economy.
“Individuals with a post-secondary education are in a higher tax bracket. They’re not putting as much pressure on public spending programs like public safety because they tend to commit fewer crimes. They don’t use the employment systems because their generally employable and working, and they’re generally healthier so they don’t put as much pressure on the healthcare system,” Molenhuis notes.
That being said, perhaps the value of your bachelor’s degree lies in its ability to do greater good for society. In terms of personal value, it seems to be what you make of it.
“We are pushing for you to get your money’s worth at university so that you feel when you’ve walked out that door you haven’t just got a piece of paper. That you’ve walked out with something that’s changed you, something that’s engaged you and something that’s set you on a path to fulfilling what you want to do,” Coker said.