À mon avis
In my opinion
Value of a degree
Graduates’ labour market
outcomes remain strong
across the board
by Ross Finnie and Allan Rock
Ross Finnie, a professor in the
graduate school of public and
international affairs, is director of the
Education Policy Research Initiative
at the University of Ottawa. Allan
Rock is president of the University
an era when the value of a university
degree is being challenged on many
fronts, new research carried out at the
University of Ottawa offers a unique,
There are many good reasons to pursue postsecondary education – knowledge for its own
sake, self-discovery, desire to contribute to society. But for many, it is primarily a stepping stone
to a career and a good livelihood. We feel strongly
that those students should have the best information possible in deciding what to study.
We partnered with Statistics Canada to link
data on students to their tax records so we could
follow the earnings of bachelor-level graduates
on a year-by-year basis after graduation. We did
this for all who graduated from 1998 to 2010,
and followed them to 2011. We analyzed results
by area of study as well as year of graduation.
We found surprisingly strong outcomes across
the board ( http://socialsciences.uottawa.ca/irpe-
epri/eng/). For example:
•Social sciences grads had average earnings of
$40,000 right after graduation, but this almost
doubled to just under $80,000 13 years later.
•Humanities graduates had similar starting levels and experienced steady earnings growth,
finishing just under $70,000 13 years later.
•Health graduates (including nurses, physiotherapists and related fields) started higher, but
had slower earnings growth over time.
• Math, computer science, engineering and business grads earned more than others but faced
much more volatile outcomes. Notably, graduates of information and communications technology areas started as high as $75,000 when
the sector was strong, only to plummet to about
$42,000 by 2004, once the bubble had burst.
These findings show the importance of accurate data on student outcomes, especially over a
longer horizon. Most provinces’ Key Performance
Indicators for universities and colleges look at
earnings six months to two years post-gradua-tion. These reports miss a critical part of the
story that is evident with longer-run outcomes.
Why is this kind of work important to universities and why should more institutions participate in it? We see four reasons:
1. Young people deserve to have access to reliable information when making choices about
what to study. While the average earnings of past
graduates are no guarantee for the future for any
individual student, those patterns are probably
as good a predictor as any.
2. All areas of study tend to lead to earnings
levels that reflect successful careers. So advising
students that they should follow their passion
isn’t just rhetoric, but can be founded in empirical
evidence. To study what you love may be a wise
choice after all.
3. PSE institutions can use information based
on studies like this to improve what they do. We
have just started to link schooling experiences to
post-schooling outcomes. But the more we do
this – as we will – the more we can learn about
which experiences lead to better outcomes. For
example, do co-op placements have an impact on
4. Our first study involved U of Ottawa
graduates, but the project has moved to a second
stage involving six colleges and six universities
of various sizes and profiles across the country.
We’ll soon see whether the U of Ottawa results
hold true for universities in other regions and
how college students fare. Other related projects
are in the planning stage.
The results of this research should not be
used for just another “rankings” exercise. To be
sure, labour market outcomes will vary across
students from different institutions. But that will
occur for a range of reasons that have little to do
with the quality of student experience that particular institutions provide – the characteristics
of incoming students and local labour market
conditions are but two of these.
The information produced by this research can,
instead, be used for more important purposes.
Prospective students and their parents can use it
to guide their program choices. PSE policy makers – including those inside PSE institutions – can
use it to improve and strengthen programs. And
the PSE sector as a whole can use it in responding
to those who question the value and worth of
higher education altogether.
As we pursue this research, our knowledge
of PSE student experiences and labour market
outcomes will be broadened and deeply enriched.
We now have the opportunity, and perhaps the
obligation, to continue the work.
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“Students deserve to have
reliable information when
making choices about what