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A question of (academic) degrees

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Mortar board cap

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Convocation at the University of Alberta was a bittersweet occasion for at least one family. Yielding to parental pressure to attend the graduation ceremony, our graduate irreverently considered adding a bright duct tape debt message to his mortar board: $47K. That’s the accumulated debt from a basic part-time seven-year Bachelor of Arts, not the fees to earn a medical or law degree.

The U of A put on quite a pageant, featuring a processional and a recessional where dozens of colourfully robed professors streamed on stage to their seats, and then ended the ceremony by marching off stage again, as a brass band played “Pomp and Circumstance” -- just after the university pitched students and their parents to consider themselves alumni and contribute to the university’s endowment fund, which is already at $1 billion.

In her speech, U of A president Indira Samarasekera crowed that University of Alberta will graduate 6300 students this semester. Every morning and every afternoon during Convocation Week, a new crop of about 300 “graduands” in purchased caps and rented gowns and sashes, must sit through several speeches before green-robed proctors summon them row by row to snake in single file around the back of the stage. Then each steps forward centre stage and gives the silver-throated announcer a card with their name to proclaim.

Written instructions in the grad package gave some hint of the assembly line that pushed  graduating students along from the official handshake that confirmed their degree, to six other handshakes that gently pulled them along to the stage corner – where they stepped sideways and smiled for one photographer, then stepped down the stairs and smiled for another, before proctors guided them to their seat.

Efficiency is essential in the two-and-a-half hour ceremony because U of A is handling twice as many students as before. Full-time university enrollment more than doubled in Canada in the thirty years between 1980 to 2010, from 550,000 to 1.2 million, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. What with assembly-line graduation ceremonies, corporate language, well-endowed business schools and increasing numbers of B.Comms, modern universities are embracing many aspects of Big Business.   

The photos onstage and family photos outside under the trees, are rarely for the grads, but for the parents. Many parents still cherish a lifelong dream of seeing their child graduate from university, whether as a family first or as a family tradition. They believe, as US President Obama said recently, “... that in a 21st century economy, a higher education is the single best investment that you can make in yourselves and your future...” 

On the other hand, Obama continued, “...and we’ve got to make sure that investment pays off.” Pays off? There’s the rub. “My favourite job ad,” said the U of A graduate, twirling his cap, “was the tile store that wanted a person with an MBA to staff its counter, for $17 an hour.” 

Only a decade ago, a person who graduated with a five-year Masters of Business Administration degree could expect immediate six-figure salary offers. Now the Degree Bubble has burst. Between dumbed-down public education systems, an overabundance of graduates, and endless corporate and small business campaigns to drive down wages across the board, the value of degrees has suffered drastic deflation in the seven years between 2007, when our grad entered university, and his graduation this year.   

Yet sociologists, economists and think tanks still use education, especially post-secondary education, as a significant indicator of social well-being. “Educational attainment reflects what skills are available to society and the labour market,” according to Employment and Social Development Canada. ESDC found that, in 2012, more than half (53.6 per cent) of adult Canadians had completed some kind of post-secondary education -- up nearly 21 percentage points in 20 years, from about a third of adults in 1990.

Education is the key to opportunity in a democracy, and opportunity is the key to social mobility. Even a poor child can aspire to rise in social class, by doing well in school. But until very recently, many kids from all classes only aspired to completing high school.

ESDC found that, among Canadians older than 65, nearly four in 10 (37 per cent) did not have high school diplomas. I’ll say that again. Almost 40 per cent of Canadians born in 1950 or earlier never finished high school.

So you can imagine that in 1946, after World War II, earning a BA was a very big deal. Through “the Canadian GI Bill,” suddenly thousands of returning soldiers did earn BAs, changing their lives from farming or seafaring to glamourous urban jobs earning much more money. In the 1950s and 60s, a person with a university degree had a genuine job ticket, a pass to the middle class.

This is the background for statements such as the US government statistic that a worker with a BA earns nearly a million dollars more over a lifetime, than a worker with a high school diploma. For average lifetime US workforce earnings, a high school graduate earns $1.2 million; a BA grosses $2.1 million, and over a lifetime, on average, a master's degree holder earns $2.5 million.

Figures like these have spurred university enrollment. By 2012, nearly 70 per cent (69.2 per cent) of young Canadian adults (22 to 44), and six in 10 (59.2 per cent) of middle-aged (45 to 64) Canadians had earned a degree or occupational diploma or certificate.  

Some degrees have more value than others. A B.Comm might get a job interview in a corporate setting. A B.Sc might get an internship in a business incubator. As for a Bachelor of Arts -- you want fries with that? 

“The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job...” began a story that Catherine Rampell wrote for the New York Times a year ago. 

To 2014 grads, the idea that a BA could be a job ticket seems beyond belief:  “... the higher supply has led to some unfortunate employment prospects. These days, it’s not uncommon to see college grads working in shopping malls and coffee shops,” says a post on a blog run by and for youth interns. 

Of course, with manufacturing and a lot of office work outsourced overseas, retail is where the big spenders are. No, really, “personal consumption expenses” drive 70 per cent of the US economy -- of which more than half involves retail sales.

Instead of gaining security, new grads find themselves joining what’s known as the “precariat” -- precarious workers who piece together their living from temporary, part-time, contract or self-employment – never earning enough to be able to pay down debt and still have a life. Although they can’t even land a job interview without a BA, almost half  (48 percent) of employed college grads are in jobs that don’t really require a college education.   

And the problem is global. “Forty per cent of recent graduates in U.S. are underemployed,” said Canadian Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, “and youth unemployment is around 50 per cent in the worst affected countries in the euro area.”  Carney told the New York Times that capitalism is “eating its children.” 

Last year, French and Quebec students staged massive protests against escalating tuition fees. Student debt was a factor in the Occupy movement, although Anglophones generally seem less likely to take to the streets. They do, however, go bankrupt at unprecedented rates, with 24-35 years olds filing for bankruptcy at a rate second only to 35-44 year olds, according to “Generation Broke.”

Ironically, the very business and government leaders who encourage higher university tuition fees, then exhort new graduates to embrace entrepreneurship -- which they are understandably reluctant to do. When you’re already $47,000 in debt, what bank is going to lend you $100,000 to launch a business?

On June 9, US President Obama signed an executive order limiting student loan repayments to ten percent of the student’s income. Senator Elizabeth Warren has called for regulations requiring banks to lend students money at the same favourable rates as major corporations. But the US Senate has just rejected her bill to allow ex-students to renegotiate longstanding loans, at today’s very low interest rates.

Canada Student Loans are administered by the federal government, although most provinces offer loans too. The CSLC interest rates are so high (prime plus five per cent for the fixed rate, prime plus 2.5 percent for the variable) that some banks are offering Student Line of Credit services as an alternative. The government’s advice compounds the problem. If loan repayments eat up too much of the monthly remittances, they advise negotiating for lower monthly payments -- which of course means paying much more interest over a longer period of time. 

While grads are not the only workers caught by the job shortage -- older workers suffer too -- leaving most of a new adult generation jobless seems particularly short-sighted. These young people are bright, bright, bright. Give them security and direction, and they could achieve wonders -- such as rescuing the planet from the environmental mess their elders have created. Canada has much to lose and nothing to gain by leaving them twirling their mortar boards hopelessly.

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