The value of your arts degree – Post graduate reflections

Amidst a diverse schedule of academics, extra-curricular activities, part-time jobs and partying, it’s hard for the average Laurier student to remember the bigger picture. Why university? Is this experience valuable? What’s the next step? For the undergraduate arts student facing a variety of experiences and newfound independence, these broad but important questions often go unanswered.

For Kyle Welch, a 2010 Laurier graduate of political science, these days undergraduate degrees are becoming an expected next step for individuals graduating from high school.

“It’s almost at the point where you need a bachelor’s degree for anything,” said Welch. “It’s no longer that a bachelor’s degree is something to be revered. It’s a minimum on your resume.”

According to a Statistics Canada report released on Sept. 7 of this year, about 80 per cent of Canadian teens were pursuing a formal education in 2008.

Of these students, 83 per cent were employed after graduation compared to 53 per cent of those who had not obtained a university or college degree.

The report also noted that those who attended a university program earned 75 per cent more than high school, trade or vocational students after graduation.

An article published through Postmedia News quotes Council of Ministers of Education of Canada (CMEC) Director General Andrew Parkins as stating, “Today’s reports on education indicators confirm the strong economic value of education. People with post-secondary education, particularly university education, earn higher incomes and are less likely to be unemployed.”

Tara Orchard, co-ordinator of career counselling at Laurier’s Career Development Centre, explained that most of the university’s graduates are employed at the end of their degree.
“85 to 95 per cent [of graduates] get jobs after graduation,” she explained, adding that these large numbers include individuals who end up in positions unrelated to their field or not in the particular area they intended.

“They’re not always their preferred jobs. The question is once you’re in that job what do you do next? Hopefully in that time they’ll figure that out.”

While the statistics seem to firmly suggest that a university degree is economically beneficial across the board, there are many important factors at play, including quality of education, rising tuition and the difficulty of finding degree-related jobs that question the practicality of urging high school students to attain a “higher” education.

Planning your future

Nearing the end of one’s secondary education, there is pressure from parents, teachers and peers to choose an acceptable next step.

According to Kari Pritchard, who graduated with a degree from Laurier in Cultural Studies and English in 2009, students who are at that particular crossroad often choose university for the wrong reasons. She noted that gaining independence and being away from home often overshadow any career-planning that ought to occur in the early stages.

“It’s so hard when you’re 16 or 17 to know what kind of job will make you happy,” Allie Maxted, a 2010 political science, philosophy and economics (PPE) Laurier graduate told The Cord.

Pritchard also explained that she felt as though the situation was a catch-22.

“I was expected to go to university… I wish I would’ve taken the time to figure out what I wanted to do, but … I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and where my interests were until I went to university,” she stated.

And once at university, the uncertainty often still remains.

Orchard explained that first- and second-year Laurier students are so busy adjusting to school and university life that they are often following “unconscious career paths.”

“I think the statistic is that 40 to 60 per cent of students don’t finish with the degree they started with, so either they drop out or they switch majors. So that’s most students, so it’s not unusual,” Orchard explained.

For Laurier alumnus Kale Boehmer, a 2010 cultural studies and film studies graduate, the entire system seems like a “money grab” because the university as a whole does not place enough importance on helping students plan their degrees responsibly.

Pritchard agreed, explaining that there is often a disconnect between the courses universities offer students and what will be useful after graduation.

“They say ‘You can major in philosophy’, and it sounds so cool but unless you want to be a teacher or a professor … it’s like they’re tricking you,” said Pritchard, stating that universities often allow students to specialize in different arts programs to the point that there are few field-relevant positions available to those graduates.

However, Boehmer added that the problem’s root lies in a deficiency of high school counselling. He noted that university is almost unilaterally pushed as the most appropriate path.

“If somebody had talked to me about trades and apprenticeship, who knows? I could be a carpenter,” he said.

Welch explained that a “stigma” is often attached to the decision not to obtain an undergraduate degree, adding that college education, while different, is just as acceptable.

The job market

For those that do graduate with arts degrees, finding employment can be a long and difficult process.

Maxted told The Cord that among her friends who have graduated with arts degrees, most are unemployed.

“Everyone I know has gone home because they don’t have a job, or has reverted to some sort of high school job,” she explained.

Welch agreed, adding that out of his roommates at Laurier – including several arts, one science and one business major – only the science and business graduates were successful in finding reputable positions in their field.

For Boehmer and Pritchard, the search for employment has been frustrating.

“When I first got out of school I was pretty ambitious,” explained Pritchard, who wants to pursue a career in writing.

As more and more time passed, she admitted, “My standards just kept getting lower and lower and I thought, ‘Now I just need a job, because I need a source of income’.”

Boehmer and Maxted agreed that despite an arts degree’s inability to easily secure a profession, it is often the networking one does during one’s undergraduate degree that can help the process.

“I was looking for stuff related to my degree first and pretty much the only skills I got out of my degree that were relevant were Microsoft Office and maybe statistics,” Maxted explained.

However, she explained that her connections with a Laurier professor helped her secure a potential position.

“It’s more about the people you know than anything else,” she said.

Maxted added that the friends she has who have been successful have each taken chances and risks.

“The people who have gone back to their high school jobs are not going to find anything else, because they aren’t looking,” she explained, adding that often the key lies in being creative.

“When you can’t find a job, you make one.”

According to Orchard, despite the recession, there are still good jobs available to graduates with arts degrees.

“The key is figuring out what you want to do. Don’t let the degree define your options. Figure your options out and then figure out how you can use your education to market you for that kind of job,” she added.

The grad-school trend

Orchard did recognize that many students – due to the constriction of the job market from the recession – have felt the need to attend graduate education.

“With the poor economy, sometimes you do see an increase in the amount of people going to grad school because it does keep them out of the workforce longer,” she stated.

Orchard added that while entry-level salaries among those with a bachelor and those with a masters or doctorate are similar, those with graduate distinction often move up more quickly in a company.

Pritchard explained that once she decided to pursue journalism, she had little choice but to attend grad school.

“If I wanted to get anything in the field of English I felt like I had to get more particular training because there’s no job called ‘English’,” she explained. “You need something else to go along with being able to read and express yourself coherently… You need something other than an undergrad.”

For Welch, the trend that many students are pursuing graduate education makes sense, given the fact that each student finishing their undergraduate receives the same certification.

“With arts students, the ones who want to work in their field are the ones who are willing to go and get a grad degree to put themselves head and shoulders above the rest,” he explained.

Maxted agreed, stating, “You look at someone who has done all their classes half-assed and somebody who’s put themselves into it and they come out with the exact same paper.

“That’s why it’s so frustrating and why I want to get a masters degree, because it’s almost something to prove that I did more than just show up,” she explained.

The education

For Boehmer and Welch, the fact that some students attend university with no intention of achieving a meaningful education also results in a devaluation of their undergraduate degree.

“I want everyone to have the opportunity, but if they’re not serious about the opportunity they shouldn’t hurt the view of that opportunity for the rest of us, who actually do take it seriously,” Welch explained.

He added that raising acceptance grades would help eliminate this problem.

For Welch, the fact that business students require high 80s and an arts program like philosophy require high 70s results in the legitimization of the idea that business degrees are more respectable than arts degrees.

While Maxted thinks that a change in entrance grades would be detrimental because the economy benefits from individuals attaining bachelor degrees, she notes that the major change should happen in high school curriculum.

“I think a lot of times people in elementary school in high school aren’t learning very much,” said Maxted. “A lot of what you learn in university could be learned a lot earlier, so that everybody in university could be getting the same education but not having to go through masters to get there.”

While, for Maxted, many Laurier students do not make enough effort to attain the benefits of an undergraduate degree, she notes that her experience at Laurier has ultimately been positive.

“I questioned everything I believed in only four years,” said Maxted, adding that “It’s the degree and also being around other people at university.”

Pritchard agreed. When asked whether she would attend university again if she had just graduated from high school again, she stated “Just for the academics, I don’t know if I could be convinced.

“I’m sure it had an effect on me and made me a smarter person because I expanded my knowledge… But when I talk to people about it, my experiences outweighed my education by far,” she explained.