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Higher Education and ROI: The Employment-Education Debate

Higher Education and ROI: The Employment-Education Debate
Higher education institutions should be preparing their students for successful careers, but curricular decisions should not exclusively rely on labor market needs.
University seniors no longer have jobs lined up after graduation, according to the satirical website The Onion. Instead, they line up for an “excruciating 14-month employment search.”[1] In any good parody, there are shades of truth, and this one is no different. This is an all-too-real issue for many university graduates. With relatively high rates of graduate unemployment (not to mention underemployment) there has been considerable public debate about the role of higher education institutions in preparing students for the workforce. One side suggests universities and colleges need to be aligned strongly to the national economy and with professions who are in demand, while others counter that the pursuit of knowledge, regardless of its utility, is the main purpose of postsecondary studies.

In a previous post I disclosed some of my struggles with finding gainful employment after graduation. Unfortunately, months after having learned my three ‘hard truths,’ I’m still working (pun intended) to land a job. I don’t blame my alma mater for my current predicament, and instead attribute it to factors beyond my control. Nonetheless, it is still difficult.

In my view, the foundation for preparing students for the workforce should be established well before they set foot on campus, back in high school classrooms. Grade 10 students (high school juniors) in Ontario are required to take a half-credit careers course, although it has its own shortcomings, for example, a lack of connection to real-world opportunities.[2] This mandatory class should be improved on to help students make informed career choices at a critical juncture in their lives.

Students need some access to economic and jobs forecasting with a five-or-so-year window, to give them a sense of what the economy will look like following their postsecondary graduation. Applying to university programs that seem interesting may not be the best choice if they don’t align with future market conditions. Some professions are evolving rapidly (computer science, or for that matter, any profession using specialized software), while others are in decline (like journalism).

I applied to an environment and business program that was new and had yet to produce any graduates. It offered an innovation and unique approach to a field I was sure would be in demand (concern for the environment was polling high amongst Canadians in 2005) and that few universities offered at the time. While the ‘finding innovative programs’ approach isn’t relevant for every profession — demand for accountants is often high, and the field isn’t evolving — it is always worth considering. The problem, though, is that the material taught to me in first year was out of date by graduation, as the conversation had already shifted from basic environmental concepts (low-hanging fruit, the tragedy of the commons) toward more complex discussions (corporate social responsibility).

Once students begin their studies, they’ll inevitably learn more about their chosen field. I was fortunate to attend a university internationally known for its co-op education program, giving students the opportunity to work in their field for periods of four to eight months. Co-op opportunities help students gain highly valuable work experience and build professional networks; something difficult to do in the lecture hall where it takes time for the real world to permeate the textbooks.

It’s important for students to understand the differences between the various postsecondary options, as too much focus and importance are placed on enrolling in a four-year institution. In some cases, universities may not be the best option. Community colleges offer better returns in certain fields. The colleges are suited for crafting practical skills rather than emphasizing less-tangible academic concepts and principles.

Reflecting on my experience as an environmental professional, I regret not having high-demand skills needed for available junior environmental field technician positions; skills such as water sampling, air sampling/monitoring or groundwater collection. These skills could have been gained in a post-graduate college program through a technology diploma (or, to a lesser extent, potentially during a university co-op work placement).

Universities do have an important role to play in preparing their graduates for the workforce. They should connect current students to program alumni to discover more about their career experiences. For example, my program offers a Cool Jobs website and hosts annual get-togethers for recent alumni and former professors to generate a dialogue that can be taken back to campus.

It’s important to keep in mind that we should not tailor university education exclusively to suit labor market needs. We enjoy the privilege of living in a democracy and all fields of study have their own value to society, be it arts or engineering. However, students need to be sure what they’re paying for will lead them to a rewarding, satisfying career.

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[1] “College Senior Already Has Grueling 14-Month Employment Search Lined Up After Graduation,” The Onion, March 25, 2014. Accessed at,35610/

[2] “Civics and Careers Courses Need Work, Say Students,” CBC News, February 15, 2012. Accessed at

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