Is getting a bachelor’s degree still worth it?

With student debt soaring, some question its value. But our Best Jobs ranking shows the math still works

RRSP's can come in handy for more than just retirement. (Christopher Furlong/Getty)

(Christopher Furlong/Getty)

Total student debt in Canada is growing like crazy, up 44% between 1999 and 2012, according to a Statistics Canada survey released in February. That’s $28.3 billion owed in total—a number not far behind the GDP of Afghanistan. Crazy, right?

It’s not all bad news, though. Consider this: In 2000, only 15.5% of working-age Canadians had university degrees; by 2013, the number was up to 22.7%. That’s a veritable sea change in a decade, and it explains the burgeoning debt pile (in addition to rising tuition). The increases have been steady too, so you can’t chalk it up to the recession scaring people away from the job market back into the classroom (though there was a bit of that).

Still, it raises an important question: did those degree-getters make a good choice?

In a word, yes. In fact, it’s hard to look at our latest ranking of the 100 best jobs in Canada (based on job growth, pay and demand) and reach any other conclusion. By my count, degrees are relevant—and usually required—for three-quarters of the jobs on our list.

(A handful of professions, like police officer, aren’t clear-cut: qualifications vary by department—for example, the Vancouver Police Department requires 30 credits of college education—but a degree is certainly an advantage.)

Put another way, three-quarters of Canada’s best jobs—according to Canadian Business, anyway—are inaccessible to 77.3% of working-age Canadians, those without a degree.

As Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, told The Globe and Mail, “the basic premise that the value of a BA is not what it used to be is wrong.” His research, based on census information, found that people with a basic undergraduate degree make $1.4 million more over their lifetime than those with no post-secondary and $1 million more than college grads.

In other words, the payoff for those grads is more than they racked up in student debt. Today, the average amount owed in Canada is around $27,000. Sure, paying that down sucks—believe me, I owe more than the average—but it’s paid back 50-fold. What other relatively low-risk investment reaps such a colossal reward?

But, wait, you say: What happens when there are too many degree holders? There are only so many degree-requiring jobs, right? The pie is finite, no? If more and more of us go to school, won’t we end up with a bunch of Starbucks baristas with PhDs?

A valid concern, but the data shows a clear trend of more and more degree-oriented career paths emerging, while prospects for the alternative—working class jobs in manufacturing and construction—grow dimmer. The service industry, meanwhile, pays terribly.

As Richard Florida, the well-known urban studies academic at the University of Toronto, has argued, the “creative class”—professionals, basically, most of whom have degrees—have become an increasingly significant share of the workforce, a trend that shows no sign of stopping.

Indeed, the creative class weathered the recession far better than the working class, according to Florida’s data, and degree holders have always faced lower unemployment, even if that advantage was a little less pronounced last year. Sure, not all degrees are equal—you’ll notice many of our top jobs are in engineering—but getting one is as good of an idea as it’s ever been, if not more so.

In short, Mom and Dad were right. Stay in school.

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6 comments on “Is getting a bachelor’s degree still worth it?

  1. Ahh, the glory in having a degree in Art Appreciation or History of the World. The world will beat a path to my feet to pay me mega dollars so that I can retire at age 55. NOT.
    Although having a degree is important to show that your have “some” skills and possibly more than those without the DEGREE !!, you have to show skills in tasks that are meaningful if you want to pay down the debt load in a reasonable amount of time.
    Having a “degree” in an esoteric and ethereal topic is from an employer’s perspective, meaningless. And they are willing to pay 0 Dollars as in ZERO DOLLARS for that degree.
    However, a technical skill in electronics, plumbing, welding, air craft mechanics, Ahhh, now that is interesting to an employer. An esoteric or ethereal subject, Yeh, come back whenever.

    So, the net result, a Degree is GREAT but make sure it is in something better than customer service at MacDonald’s or Timmy’s.

  2. The basic flaw in the research is clear: based on census information, found that people with a basic undergraduate degree make $1.4 million more over their lifetime than those with no post-secondary and $1 million more than college grads.
    The boom in degrees only happened in the last 10 years, and they are using lifetime statistics based on people who graduated 40 years ago to compare earnings.
    A simple comparison of average earnings 5 years after graduation now and after graduation 30 years ago, will show a marginal drop in earnings. Scarcity of the degree got the increased earnings in the lifetime earnings, not so much today.

  3. A degree is only worth it when you get it in less “ethereal” topics. I hold a honours degree in Art History and upon graduation could not find a job for the life of me. I went back to school and got a second degree in Marketing & Advertising and, while I have found a job, I became overqualified for many of the entry-level positions. While it is great to suggest for students to “stay in school,” don’t stay in school too long or you will face the opposite problem. My husband went to school for Chemical Engineering and has had no problems finding a job. I would suggest students switch to science if you are looking for a well-paying job right out of school. If science isn’t the field for you, be prepared to wait to find your dream job!

  4. I would agree with Lauren. What you learn at school directly affects the work you’ll be doing. Science students are more likely to get a job as soon as they’re out of the school. My nephew took arts and history at school and found it really hard to find a job suiting his interest . He then did a welder red seal course at Weldtech Training Centre at Mississauga. Within days after the course completion he got placed in a metal works company at Brampton.