I left university for the last time 15 years ago. Or so I thought.
Already settled on a career path, or as much so as a 19-year-old male mind can settle, I interrupted my studies twice for more than a year each time to work in newspapers. The second departure was almost for good, as I was offered a promotion which would have kept me at that paper for some time. My university career, most likely, would have been over.
But I chose to finish what I started and returned to complete my degree.
I wish I could say that decision sprung from a grand revelation, one that laid out a better path before me. But that wasn’t the case. Like most of my early – and rare – good decisions, the root of success was two parts parental pressure, one part blind luck.
Since graduating, however, something unexpected happened.
I wasn’t ready for university when I was 18. It wasn’t until I was more mature in my attitude that I understood the power of a university education. That’s why I came back to finish my degree in my mid-20s. That’s why I returned for a master’s degree in my late-30s and started working on a PhD, both here at Western.
Certainly, neither of these pursuits popped into the mind of that young man 15 years ago.
Even now on the classic rock side of 40, my time in the classroom continues to make me a stronger writer, a clearer thinker and a more creative researcher. I ask better questions and expect deeper answers. I see more grey in the world. Tangentially, that has made me a better boss and co-worker, a stronger husband and dad and, generally, someone excited to learn and share something new every day.
Now, please quantify all that for me and slap it in a chart.
Not so easy.
One would think, from listening to recent news reports, that the value to a postsecondary education has cratered.
A CIBC World Markets study showed Canada’s share of graduates who earn less than the national median income is the highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The report further pointed out those not studying medicine, engineering or law might as well prepare for the salt mines. Graduates from fine and applied arts programs can expect to make 12 per cent less than high school graduates, according to the report.
“If you have a BA in history and I graduate from high school, I can go work on an assembly line but you will not work on that assembly line. There is a negative premium,” report co-author Benjamin Tal told the Financial Post.
Of course, no word on when Tal will return from 1975 when there were enough assembly line jobs to go around. But why let details get in the way of a good narrative?
I was disappointed at the silence from the postsecondary sector to the report. Where were the voices standing up publicly to cry foul?
I know, I know, that’s not our way. But just once, let’s punch back.
Listen, I understand my pursuits – like many of yours – are not in the economic sweet spot. My interests have never aligned with pressing economic need. But that has never been my goal. If top dollar is what you want, great, the formula is simple: Pick one of three given areas with the higher return on investment and head out.
But I have trouble defining the ‘value’ of postsecondary education simply by earnings.
Every time the economy takes a dive, the Punditry Class starts to question the ‘value’ of a university education. They cry out for measurable, immediate financial results from our postsecondary institutions in specific fields: “Forget tomorrow’s thinkers; we need more lawyers today.”
It’s not that rethinking of how we operate is a bad thing; any institution of a certain age needs to re-examine itself from time to time. For one, we owe real answers to this, and future, generations on tuition costs.
But simply stated: Universities have had great ‘value’ for about a millennia now, and will continue to, long into the future. But for many of us, the value we find inside the classroom does not appear on a chart.
Yes, we should face extraordinarily tough questions to maintain our standing in society. Bring that on. But we shouldn’t allow people to define our ‘value’ for us without facing tough questions in return.