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William Johnson, the coordinator for Off-Campus Outreach and Engagement at the SEO, reflects on what the value of a university degree is to today’s generation of students and future leaders.


Herb O’Heron, the director of research and policy analysis at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, recently penned a very informed column in University Affairs titled “A university degree remains a valuable investment.”

Despite O’Heron’s obvious bias in the debate surrounding this issue, one of his claims—that university graduates are afforded a significant income advantage compared with highschool graduates—is, as far as I can see, rather indisputable. In fact, without commentary, the statistics speak for themselves: as of 2005, according to the Bourdat, Lemieux and Riddell study, a male bachelor’s graduate can expect to earn on average 50% more than a highschool graduate; the advantage for women is even greater.

Now, I for one am less concerned with the amount of money I am making than with the intellectual stimulation, fulfillment from a meaningful day of work and professional growth opportunities I am receiving as a result of my employment. As a student, I was looking for comparable things: unique experiences; development of my communication skills; the cultivation of my social and collaboration skills, among other things. I know for a fact that this is what many students are seeking right now as they complete their degrees. These add-ons to a B.A. or a B.-whatever and, I believe, what truly make a university degree worth completing. Critics who solely focus on whether or not a degree guarantees graduates immediate employment are missing the point and, I would argue, have a very narrow conception of what the ROI of post-secondary education should or could be.

O’Heron correctly posits that “income is not the ultimate motivation for all students.” I have no evidence to back up the following statement, but I don’t believe that income is the motivation for many students at all. I work with and around hundreds of students through student engagement, development and orientation programs all year round, and I have yet to hear from one student ever that the reason they’re studying is because they want to be wealthy. I have never heard a student say, “Thank you for this opportunity; my experience in this activity is going to boost my salary ten-fold!” No, what I have observed is that more than anything, students appreciate rich, complimentary social and academic experiences that contribute to their personal growth, professional development, and self-realization and awareness.

Increasingly, through robust student engagement initiatives, classroom innovation and increased emphasis on learning outcomes in student affairs work, universities are giving students more practical opportunities to combine classroom learning with real-world engagement. A university is where students go to become thoughtful, civic-minded citizens with critical thinking skills, an understanding of their world and a high-degree of social intelligence—all traits that should appeal to any organization or employer.

In a recent Higher Education Strategy blog post, Alex Usher wrote that “education is a social activity.” He continued, “the creation of human capital involves rubbing elbows.” Though Usher was talking about the benefits of the current institutional model of face-to-face teaching in tangible classrooms versus a focus on technologically-based online courses, his points are actually applicable to the idea that universities have any value at all. Universities, in a few words, are centres for human development. And what students will get from their experience at university – through courses, exchanges, co-op, participation in clubs and societies, social events and community service-learning initiatives, among other things – can’t necessarily be quantified; but that does not mean what students are getting – beyond the letters next to their name – doesn’t have any intrinsic value.

IMHO, you can’t really calculate a concrete return on investment for something in which the level (and type) of investment varies so incredibly from one person to the next. In my estimation, at least when it comes to time and effort, students who pursue post-secondary education will get back what they give. And for those that give, the returns are invaluable.

Submitted by William Johnson, Coordinator, Off-Campus Outreach & Engagement in the Student Experience Office

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