Is University about Getting a Job? The Endless Debate

Is post-secondary purely about employment or self-development? It’s a false dichotomy.


The OECD recently released a report that suggests the most popular degrees available in higher education are not necessarily the best for landing jobs. The Toronto Star summarized the findings in an article published on September 21, 2017:

“The most popular college and university programs are business, administration and law — but all the jobs are in engineering and information technology, says a new international report on education.”

It harks back to the debate we are having more and more in society: is university about finding employment afterwards, or is it about personal development? Two days later a letter was published by Thomas Klassen of York University in response to the Toronto Star article. Klassen states that “Post-secondary education is about preparing for the rest of life, not just a job.”

Fair enough – these debates are important to have as a society to debate our way into the best possible conclusions. The issue itself unfortunately lends itself to false dichotomies. There are those who argue education is so expensive that there must be a solid and verifiable return on investment for the graduate. Or there are those who suggest university is about personal growth and that jobs will come naturally as graduates enter the workforce and gain experience and training. Both are important factors when it comes to making decisions regarding one’s education but neither can fully account for the purpose of higher education.

For better or for worse, more people are entering college and university either because they find it necessary to compete in the workforce or because it is becoming more widely expected of everyone. I find Trow’s model of “Transitions from Elite, to Mass and Universal Access” to be particularly useful to understand this shift. If, in the past, only elites attended university then their lot in life was already predetermined to be one of affluence as they had many marked advantages over the rest of society. These students could concern themselves more with personal development and “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” (Read The Idea of a University by Cardinal Newman for related material on this notion) rather than worrying about employment after graduation. But after World War II when higher education became for the “masses” and more recently when there is push to make higher education “universally accessible” then the concerns of this new cohort are going to be very different. Higher education will not be filled only with “elites” but with a variety of students who would be naturally concerned about their livelihood after their graduation as any person would be who needs to become self-sufficient.

This shift would partially explain why the debate regarding the return on investment of higher education keeps reappearing and why “personal development” does not appear to be reason enough to stand on its own as the sole reason to pursue a degree. Personal development is great if you already have connections to land a job after school, but may feel particularly irrelevant (or at least not a priority) if you are responsible for supporting your family after graduating for example.

But I want to double-back to the initial findings of the report: that the most popular degrees do not necessarily lead to the most jobs. And I feel that it is in this finding that there is some room for improvement when it comes to strategic planning for higher education in Ontario (and Canada, and beyond). In my experience advising students on program choices I have found that often their perceptions are based on what they see in the media as well as their limited knowledge of what occupations exist in the workforce. In the case of media, I have spoken with many students who would use characters in television or movies to describe to me their desired future professions. This is an understandable tendency in our media-saturated world and I am not criticizing these instances in any way. In the case of limited knowledge of occupations I found that many students are familiar with jobs such as doctor, lawyer, and teacher and they may default to some of these more “visible” (or archetypal) professions and related programs. They may be less inclined to make goals of pursuing newer jobs such data scientist or social media manager as they simply don’t know about them.

What I am arguing then, is that we need to be mindful if some programs are popular because they are often represented in the media or they fall into the category of highly visible occupations that are deeply familiar to most people. Because if a program is popular for those reasons and we as higher education institutions benefit from filling seats with those students then perhaps we are benefiting from this lack of knowledge students have regarding the outcome of these choices. Instead we may want to take a more nuanced approach of working with high schools to educate students on the return on investment of their program choices while also still encouraging personal development as an important goal. Law and commerce are certainly very valuable areas of study, but other areas may benefit from sharing the spotlight with these popular choices.

I am not one to blame a particular sector over an issue as I find that approach ineffectual in making real change. I would not blame high schools nor would I finger-wag at colleges and universities for capitalizing on popular programs. Education is exceptionally political and these changes require gradual shifts and buy-in from stakeholders. What I am advocating for is that we continue to research why students make their choices and how higher education institutions can work with these various groups to create positive outcomes for their graduates without compromising their individual academic missions.

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