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FROM THE ADMIN CHAIR

Value of a degree

A degree is an opportunity, not a guarantee.

By DOUG OWRAM | NOV 07 2011

Yet another study has been released as to whether a degree is worth the time and money. ROI, or return on investment discussions, dominated the national coverage. Questions were raised about the income distribution of degree holders and the fact that rates of return on certain arts degrees were running “as low” as four to six percent. The real headlines, though, were focused on the fact that 18 percent of degree holders were earning less than half Canada’s median income.

The particulars are new but the discussion and inevitable concerns are not. Every year or so another study appears that praises, questions or doubts the worth of degrees. The core arts and science programs are often singled out (maybe the studies are done by commerce grads) and compared to alternate choices such as trade school or, as one commentator said, heading off to Fort McMurray.

One part of me knows these are valid issues and that it is legitimate for people to have some sense of the monetary worth of their degree. Such studies may be even more pertinent for those who face considerable debt loads on graduation. Yet, there is something both artificial and disturbing about this attempt to draw a straight line from courses taken to dollars earned.

We educators have always argued that university teaches certain key skills, especially in the core programs. There is the course content, but most graduates in arts and science (and many other degrees) will not be taking their knowledge of biology, English literature or political science directly into the workplace. What they do take is some combination of critical thinking, ability to write and, perhaps most of all, ability to learn. When someone is handed a task, the ability to decipher how it might be managed, research the background material and then express the results in a clear and cogent fashion is an important, complex and durable skill. One might also add ancillary abilities derived from university, in–cluding time management and teamwork.

We academics also like to think that there is something in what universities offer that goes beyond the workplace yet has inherent value. Exposure to new perspectives, the chance to meet people from different cultures and nations, the chance to participate in new activities, from sports to campus politics, all open doors to those who take advantage of the opportunity.

But, let’s face it, the key is that these are opportunities, and opportunity must be seized. Sometimes in a state of utopian delusion people refer to an age, usually about a generation back, when students were serious, engaged and phenomenally wise. Such a place and time has never actually existed. Students have always been at different stages of maturity, varied in intelligence, commitment and initiative. We can put opportunities before them and show them how to open the doors, but they are the ones who, through the ages, have to respond.

If that is the case during their campus years, why are we surprised that the pattern continues after graduation? Some will drift and some will flourish. Some will not be interested in maximizing income and that is fine. Some would like to maximize income but do not have the initiative or adaptability to succeed.  And yes, some, through no fault of their own, will be put in economic or social situations that overwhelm them.

In all these situations, though, the university degree provides many things that change the odds, increase the adaptability of the student and improve their quality of life, quite aside from yearly annual income.

As educators, there are things we can do to improve those odds. First, design curriculum to maximize underlying skills as well as course content. Second, make those underlying skills an explicit rather than incidental goal. If we don’t tell students what they have gained they will have trouble knowing how to use those gains. Third, universities must provide the opportunities to take life beyond the classroom. The undergraduate’s chance to develop some emerging skills (as well as a dose of youthful idealism) can be both rewarding and a valuable addition to a resumé.

In sum, we do have an obligation to build opportunities as well as strong course content. What we cannot do is pretend that the certificate at the end of the degree program comes with a guarantee. It is a step in a journey.

ABOUT DOUG OWRAM

Doug Owram is deputy vice-chancellor of UBC Okanagan and a Canadian historian.

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