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Margin Notes

The million-dollar degree

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | DEC 16 2008

For many years, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (publisher of University Affairs) has argued that the earnings premium of a university degree is about $1 million over a lifetime compared to a high-school education. I was wondering if AUCC still holds to that view, and indeed they do. Right there on pg. 119 of the latest Momentum report, published in October, it reads:

The 2006 Census shows that over the course of their careers, individuals with bachelor’s degrees from Canadian universities earn, on average, $1 million more than those with only a high school education.

So there you have it. The report also notes that those with an advanced education, in general, live longer, enjoy better health and use fewer social support programs. A slam dunk, no?

Well, that view is not universal. Many are starting to sound the alarm that as more people achieve a higher education, the earnings premium will drop. Deian Hopkin, vice-chancellor (equal to a president in Canada) of London South Bank University, suggests students risk being duped if they believe government rhetoric that any degree guarantees a substantial income. He asserts that the lifetime earnings premium in the U.K. has fallen from £400,000 (roughly $1 million Cdn.) in 2004 to £100,000 now.

In the U.S., Charles Miller, who headed the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, also slammed the million-dollar lifetime earnings differential. Like Professor Hopkin, he claims it is barely one-quarter of that.

I suspect the earnings premium may indeed be falling. And, of course, not every degree recipient is going to find lucrative work. But I think we risk losing the bigger picture if we focus too much on money. A university degree not only offers the possibility of higher earnings, but also offers greater flexibility in choosing and changing career paths.

The nature of the work is also different, a point made by University of Toronto sociology professor Scott Schieman and PhD candidate Gabriele Plickert. In a recent study, they found that, among other things, well-educated people tend to have significantly more control over their work schedules and are more likely to have work that is challenging, interesting and enriching.

Take that to the bank.

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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