The question of whether postsecondary education is a good investment, of whether the “risk” is too much or if it is “worth it,” is one generally framed in terms of economic value now that PSE credentials have become ever more expensive and necessary for larger numbers of people.
Of course the correlation is there — I’d be the last one to deny it; graduates of PSE programs earn more over their lifetimes and are more likely to advance in their careers than those without such credentials. But how exactly does the correlation map out in practice? How do postsecondary graduates actually find and obtain jobs? How do they build their careers? And what image of this journey are we projecting, in the media and in classrooms? How are students being encouraged to make the connection between education and employment, and what are the consequences of that?
These are difficult questions because they relate to process: what happens between the point at which a student begins a degree and the time it is completed, such that somehow a student can obtain employment later?
Heavily emphasizing or highlighting certain skill sets, courses and degree programs because they are more highly correlated with employment is a bad idea because job markets can shift rapidly, and also because it places the skill or knowledge base outside of its larger context. As a small example, in this article the skill of computer coding is described as something that can “get you a job.” But stating this, alongside average hourly wages for computer programmers, is to present what looks like an overly simplistic equation. Who finds work that involves coding, and what is its use? How much experience, and of what kind, is required? How does coding fit into a larger skill set in a way that would help a candidate to “stand out” in a large pool of applicants?
Focusing on the university-to-job correlation without a balance of attention to process can mean that we place less value and emphasis on looking for other ways to build careers. And it means reducing the attention we pay to extra-educational factors, not only the enthusiasm, energy, talent, and work ethic that one may or may not bring to one’s education but also the privilege or lack of it, the social and cultural capital, and the many other factors that can be beyond the scope of one’s education-to-career planning.
There are no short cuts and no easy plans — no easy mapping of knowledge to employment, now that overcrowding plagues even formerly stable professions such as teaching and law. To imply that there is ever really a “guarantee” from a degree is to lead students down the garden path; it raises unrealistic expectations and re-inscribes unhelpful assumptions.
Even the availability of a degree-related job doesn’t guarantee one’s career pick. I recall about two years ago I met a young Belgian man at the hostel where I was staying in Picton, New Zealand, and by coincidence we ended up taking the same early morning ferry back to Wellington together. He came from a well-educated family, and had gone to university at 18 to become a doctor, as his parents expected. But now in his early 20s, having just completed his medical training, he seemed at a loss. He didn’t want to practice medicine, though he’d earned the credential; he’d done it not because he desired to use his time and talents in that field, but because it was just the next thing to do. I thought it was interesting that he had obtained a desirable professional degree but was now at loose ends, not even because of the job market but because of his own lack of direction outside of the university program.
Among other things, knowing yourself — your own capacity, your predilections, strengths and weaknesses and how you learn and think and function in different environments — is extremely important for making the decisions that lead to a career. There is little point in cobbling together a random kit of recommended skills if you have no real interest in those skills or in the things they enable you to do; you might find a job, but I think it’s unlikely that the recipe for employment will turn out the way you planned. Even an economic assessment of a possible career path must take non-economic, less tangible factors into account if it is to prove of any worth.
Unfortunately, prospective first time PSE students are not usually at an age where they’ve come to know themselves or the larger world and I don’t believe ‘the system’ encourages them to critically assess why they’re their in the first place. High school guidance counsellors recommend university to higher performing students, university recruiters dazzle them sales pitches, parents don’t want to be told that hard-earned education savings aren’t going to be used, universities need income…and on it goes.
It is also important to try to disentangle the selection bias in comparing university grads to high school only grads, which is often the measure presented to prospective students. If universities take the lion’s share of high-achieving students, and refuse entry to the lowest achieving students, was it the university that added value to the high achievers’ careers/incomes?
Given the small number of high achieving students who choose not to go on to university, it is very difficult to get an adequate control group to answer this question.