Why are so many Students going to University?

As high school graduation nears, thousands of students’ will continue their educational journey as they are granted admission to many of Ontario’s esteemed universities. Dreams of lifelong friendships, personal growth, professional contacts and the spark for a new career will bestow the future generation. But beyond intangible benefits, a more serious discussion needs to occur – why are so many students pursuing a university education.

Historically, a university has become the training ground for the liberation of the mind, nurturing a spirit of inquiry.  Additionally, the rewarded degree has provided innumerable financial benefits, including generating a higher earnings premium in comparison to those with just a high school diploma. However, many economists, academics and policy analysts’ current research disclose a different view – that a rising number of university graduates are faced with vast unemployement, overqualification, high levels of student debt and a labour market saturated with the inapplicable Bachelors of Arts degrees.

Enrollment Inflation

Despite the austere economic times, students continue to be dogmatic in their beliefs that a university education supersedes high school graduation as a degree leads to financial success in a global knowledge-based economy, disregarding the need for physical resources. (The New York-based nonpartisan Public Agenda revealed that since 2000, the percentage of citizens who believe university is essential to success in the modern world has gone from 31% to 55%.) Tales of university graduates folding clothes at retail stores and answering calls for customer service be damned, securing that degree will ensure success!

The enrollment inflation epidemic stems in large-part due to unparalleled demand. As universities’ budgets tighten, they are happy to open their gates to new applicants, particularly to first-in-their-family candidates. According to Canadian Statistics, from 2004 to 2008 there has been an increase in 33,000 university degrees conferred across the nation.

Supplementing this, accessibility to post-secondary education has risen through scholarships, student loans, federal endowments and private funding. However, the end result is the same. Only 73.4% of those with a Bachelors’ Degree are employed, with up to 30% of these being ‘upskilled,’ in which their job responsibilities do not actually require such advanced knowledge.

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington-based research firm, cites that there is a rising epidemic in underemployed college and university graduates with flight attendants (29.8%), retail salespeople (24.5%), customer services representatives (21.6%), baggage porters and bellhops (17.4%) and taxi drivers (15.2%) leading the way.

Watered-down Graduate Degrees

This ‘massification’ of higher education has transcended beyond the undergraduate level too, leading to watered-down graduate and professional degrees, and contradicting the human capital theory. The theory states that that graduates with the highest levels of education tend to obtain the highest earnings and are most likely to be employed full-time; a sharp contrast to the barren conditions that many Ph.Ds encounter. The Economist revealed this poor compensation in Canada as “80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before tax—the average salary of a construction worker.”

The Ontario College of Teachers’ “Transition to Teaching 2009” revealed a rising epidemic in the number of recent education graduates in teaching without job possibilities. Historically, the figure has revolved around three-to-six percent, although “underemployment continues to rise and now stands at 42 per cent.” To combat this, the Ontario Government cut up to 1,000 spots in the teachers colleges’ programs, though this fails to address Ontario-certified programs in places like Buffalo and Australia, and their local off-shoots.

This over-production has not been immune in law either. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that 29% of new lawyers were not doing legal work, and nearly 25% of them stated said their work was temporary. The New York Times featured Michael Wallerstein, a young lawyer who graduated with a quarter-million in debt and without permanent job opportunities. As musician Antoine “Fats” Domino humorously stated, “a lot of fellows nowadays have a B.A., M.D., or Ph.D.  Unfortunately, they don’t have a J.O.B.”

Vast Unemployment

This overqualification has led to vast unemployment, particularly with recent university graduates in their respective fields. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario’s (HEQCO) 2010 report, “From Postsecondary Application to the Labour Market: The Pathways of Under-represented Groups” cited that 19% of recent college or university graduates were not working in job/career goals at all. Most discouraging, the Ontario Coalition for Postsecondary Education’s 2004 report, “Funding Postsecondary Education in Ontario: Beyond the path of least resistance,” cited that 25% of university-degree holders earned salaries that were lower than those of the average high school graduates. Bryan Caplan, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University, puts it more succinctly, “from a moral point of view, far too many students are going to college – just as far too many people stand up at concerts.”

Accessibility to Moral Obligation

With the risks so high, why are students dogmatic about their belief in a university education? Large-scale social optimism has influenced an idealistic Millennial generation where every young adult believes they can vie for a top-tier job while partaking in class mobility. This combined with society’s shift from creating accessible pathways to university, to now a moral obligation in providing every student the opportunity to attend, has greatly attributed towards this false rhetoric. (Recently, the Liberal Party of Canada championed their $1-billion Canadian Learning Passport as an opportunity for students to attend university at a reduced cost.)

Unrestrained enrollment has led to poor quality control, with numerous underqualified students being admitted to universities. Just across the border, the City University of New York has gone from one of America’s prestigious university systems with twelve Nobel laureates, to a second-tier school after it opened up its admission policies in the 1970’s on the premise of “accessibility.”

The Dumbing Down of Education

The crux of the matter is that far too often, attending university has too quickly become the path for graduating high school students, disregarding ample academic preparation. In the 2010 Deloitte Education Survey, just 31 percent of high school teachers thought their graduating students were prepared for post-secondary institutions. As a result, the “dumbing down” of education has led to re-visiting elementary courses to aid a lack of literacy, arithmetic and particularly, critical thinking skills. Twenty-eight to forty percent of students take remedial classes in university to catch up with “Remedial English” being amongst one of the fastest-growing courses. In a state of disbelief, a York University professor recently told me that “all students can talk about are their boyfriends and girlfriends.”

As a the Director for the Centre for Applied Cognitive Research at Carleton University and a professor for over twenty years, Jo-Anne LeFevre has seen first-hand this decline. From 1990 to 2005, she has witnessed a 25 percent decrease in the number of simple arithmetic problems students were able to calculate in a set time period. Crisises in mathematics have similarly occur at Brock University, Trent University and the University of Guelph, which have all experienced significant drops in the students’ performance in their first-year physics course.

Reasons abound, including the lack of necessary work ethic. In their 2010 landmark paper, Philip Babcock, an Economics professor at the University of California – Santa Barbara, and Mindy Marks, at the University of California – Riverside, revealed that the average studying time per week for student at a four-year college has declined from 24 hours to just 14 hours.

When asked how much time he spends reading textbooks for class, one fourth-year accounting major at Radford University, a public university in Virginia, responded with “Well, this week I don’t have any tests, so probably zero.” When asked what his standard day looked like, he stated “I just play sports, maybe go to the gym. Eat. Probably drink a little bit. Just kind of goof around all day.”

“If you have a high school diploma – and can walk and talk – you can graduate from college,” says Jerome Murphy, the former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Mr. Murphy isn’t exaggerating. Televisions’ notoriously-trashy reality show Jersey Shore contains three members who have college degrees, including Jenni “JWoww” Farley who tweeted that she has “7 yrs of college and 2 degrees [sic].”

The “Other” opportunities

In a recovering economy, a cost-benefit ratio reveals that most students should be looking at other options beyond university, such as short-term career-prep programs, apprenticeship programs, on-the-job training, and even the Canadian Armed Forces.

However, the deviation of high school students towards post-secondary education is propelled by the strong societal stigma against vocational training and apprenticeships. A 2009 HEQCO report stated that there was a “widespread perception that skilled trades represent an inferior career pathway among youth, parents, and employers. As such, potential apprentices are often disinclined to pursue apprenticeship as a postsecondary option.” Even when students were frustrated with career-specific training, they ruled out apprenticeships.

The report goes on to justify this through a historical lens, citing Canada’s weak record of apprenticeship, with skilled labour being typically filled through immigration. Furthermore, the lack of information on apprenticeship opportunities further hinders potential students.

Needless to say, many vocations offer well-compensated positions with flexible hours that provide personally fulfillment through hands-on work. Store managers, Electricians, plumbers, carpenters and welders can make as much as $70,000 a year.

Joe Lamacchia, a father of five from Holliston, Massachusetts encouraged his children to consider vocational training. Lamacchia barley finished high school and began cutting grass. He currently owns a

$2 million-a-year landscaping and driveway-paving business. “Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy,” says Charles Murray, author of infamous book, The Bell Curve, “Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason – the list goes on and on – is difficult, and it is a seller’s market.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, at the United States Department of Labor forecasts that the majority of the fastest growing occupations by 2018 will not require a university degree. Home health aides, skin care specialists, dental hygienists, pharmacy technicians, physical therapist aides, construction laborers, truck drivers, and carpenters amongst the most in-demand jobs. Within these occupations, there are opportunities for professional growth; just ask media mogul David Geffen.

After graduating from high school, Geffen climbed the corporate ladder beginning in the mailroom of a talent agency, then becoming an agent, later owning two record companies, to co-founding Dreamworks movie studio with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. The three are billionaires. None of them graduated from university.

We need to delve upon why so many parents are encouraging their children to attend university. A degree has become pseudo-evidence for many parents’ insecurities about their child’s social and economic status, intellectual capability and ambitions. Common rhetoric amongst school teachers are the number of students who want to become ‘doctors and lawyers,’ yet are functionally illiterate.

Who is the degree for? – Upon Retrospection

In an information-based globalized economy, university is seemingly most beneficial for those where higher-level occupations are in-demand; students with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM fields), are preferred by the marketplace.

Young adults today are often ambitious and yet directionless – what sociologists Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson call “drifting dreamers.”  More than ever, university graduates are resorting to non-traditional pathways, attending college for a specialized program after completing the university degree.

This false premium that our society has placed on attending university has shifted our focus from what truly count – ability. “Walk into Microsoft or Google with evidence that you are a brilliant hacker,” says Charles Murray, “and the job interviewer is not going to fret if you lack a college transcript.”

Perhaps it’s a cultural phenomenon representative of the current generation. “This idea of exceptionalism — I don’t know if it’s a thing with millennials, or what,” says Kimber A. Russell, a graduate of DePaul University’s College of Law. “Even if you tell them the bottom has fallen out of the legal market, they’re all convinced that none of the bad stuff will happen to them. It’s a serious, life-altering decision, going to law school, and you’re dealing with a lot of naïve students who have never had jobs, never paid real bills.”

Michael Wallerstein, the previously aforementioned young lawyer, puts it more candidly. “It’s a prestige thing,” he states. “I’m an attorney. All of my friends see me as a person they look up to. They understand I’m in a lot of debt, but I’ve done something they feel they could never do and the respect and admiration is important.”

Michael Wallerstein

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One Comment to “Why are so many Students going to University?”

  1. A well written and interesting read which highlights a burning question for
    me; should we not encourage our children to pursue a higher education? Perhaps before you answer that you will have to research the plausibility of a shift in social/cultural thinking and an overhaul of our education system at the grassroots level.

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