But before you choose, think about who you are, what you want to study—and why you’re making the choice in the first place

TONY KELLER November 19 2007


But before you choose, think about who you are, what you want to study—and why you’re making the choice in the first place

TONY KELLER November 19 2007



But before you choose, think about who you are, what you want to study—and why you’re making the choice in the first place


You may be reading this, our 17th annual and largest-ever University Rankings issue, because you are thinking about going to university. Or maybe you are the parent of someone who is thinking about university. (Or maybe you are the parent of someone who you wish would unplug the iPod and start thinking about university.) Whatever the case, you are faced with a lot of options, so many choices in fact—so many universities, so many majors, so many programs, so many decisions—that you worry about making the right one.

You should take some relief in knowing that this is sort of like a multiple choice test, but where there is more than one right answer: more than one right university, more

than one right course of study and more than one right destination. There are almost innumerable right answers. The challenge is figuring out which answers could be right for you.

Education can expose you to ideas and possibilities that will change your mind and your life, likely in unforeseen ways. A little learning can alter the most deeply held opinions, along with the best laid plans. I started my undergraduate degree at one university but decided to finish it at another; I intended to be a historian but ended up a journalist; I planned to go to graduate school but wound up accepting a job instead. None of the later choices was an attempt to fix a mistake; on the contrary, Tm glad I made all of those

decisions. You too will get to change your mind and change your life. Multiple choice test, lots of right answers.

There is no institution or course of study that will guarantee something as concrete as success, or as ineffable as happiness. But your odds of both can be, on average, substantially increased by attending university. The happiness thing isn’t easy to quantify, but material success is: it will not surprise you to learn that the average Canadian with a university degree makes considerably more than a person with a college or trade-school diploma, who in turns is doing better than the average person with only a high-school education. In fact, the average Canadian with a university degree can expect to make about $1 million more over a lifetime than someone without. It’s been a pretty solid investment for the last couple of generations.

The above statistics are, however, an average for millions of Canadians of all ages. Uni-

versity is a place where you will be asked to look closer, to find out what complexity lies beneath the surface. So before you become a university student, let’s dig a bit deeper into some numbers about university grads.

According to the 2001 census, the average male whose highest level of education is a bachelor’s degree earned $56,810 in 2000. But that average number masks some very large differences in outcomes by areas of study. I asked Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, to dig into the Statistics Canada data and give us a deeper look at who earns how much, based on what they studied at university. We focused on men, to make for more accurate comparisons across disciplines, and the 35to 39-year-old age group, to look at people who are already well into their careers.

What we discovered is that some university courses of study deliver markedly above average incomes—and some do not.

In 2000, men aged 35 to 39 whose highest level of education was a bachelor’s degree in computer science and other applied mathematics made nearly $70,000 a year. Men in their late 30s with bachelor’s degrees in

economics earned an average of nearly $72,000 a year; those with degrees in electrical and electronic engineering made nearly $73,000. (All figures have been rounded to the nearest thousand.) Those with degrees in business, commerce and management were making well over $70,000, too. Bachelor’s degrees in mining, metallurgical and petroleum engineering earned nearly $80,000, while those who studied actuarial science were pulling in just shy of $95,000. Many of those in the sciences also made out better than the average, with B.Sc.s in chemistry earning nearly $63,000 and B.Sc.s in physics making over $58,000.

Those earning the above-average incomes


generally had degrees in applied fields: business, engineering, plus some sciences. The one constant seems to be a solid grasp of math.

On the other side of the balance were those whose incomes fell below the average. They included graduates in the arts, humanities and some sciences and social sciences. Late30s men with a bachelor’s in biology made just over $52,000. Those with a degree in sociology earned $51,000. Psychology grads made $49,000; English language and literature earned $45,000. Those with degrees in philosophy earned $44,000, fine arts earned $42,000, anthropology pulled in $40,000 and grads with degrees in music made $38,000.

None of this means that you won’t be happy and successful as a result of studying in these potentially lesser-paid areas. You have to find what’s right for you. Money isn’t everything, and these numbers are, remember, averages. The average man in his late 30s with my degree, a B.A. in history, is at the lower end of the university income scale, earning about $47,000 a year. But I don’t regret studying history, and I don’t think you will either.

There is a strong correlation between how much education you have and your earning

potential, but university is not the only place to acquire more learning. There are a good number of people whose highest level of education is college or trades training, and who are earning a very respectable living.

For example, men in their late 30s whose highest level of education is a college certificate or diploma in social work and social services earned $49,000 a year in 2000. That’s more than the university grads in fields such as philosophy, anthropology or history. The same goes for those with college educations in business, commerce, marketing, transportation technologies, chemical technology, and other engineering technologies. Men in their late 30s with any of those credentials had average incomes of $50,000 or more.

There are also many trades that pay extremely well. Our society has a bias against working with your hands, and increasingly pushes everyone to go to university, looking down on those who choose other routes. This


is crazy. We badly need people who have learned certain vital, technical skills that universities simply aren’t designed to teach. “Part of the challenge,” says Jennifer Steeves, executive director of the Canadian Automotive Repair and Service Council (CARS), “is having kids—and their parents—see careers in the automotive service and repair industry as the viable, challenging, well-paying positions that they are. There is still an

unwarranted stigma to being an automotive service technician.” The same could be said of any number of trades. Over the next seven years, CARS projects shortages of between 12,240 and 20,170 skilled employees in its industry alone.

But a crisis for society could spell opportunity for you. Because these skills are so essential, we’ll pay those who have them, in some cases quite handsomely. According to the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, many of the workers in occupations classified as “trades, transport and equipment operators” are earning excellent salaries. For example, based on Statistics Canada data, they estimate that motor vehicle mechanics and technicians with 10 or more years experience make over $56,000. Equally experienced aircraft mechanics and inspectors make $63,000. Industrial electricians, contractors and supervisors in the pipefitting trades, along with electrical power line and cable workers, all make more than $70,000. Experienced power systems electricians, elevator constructors and mechanics, and contractors and supervisors in electrical trades and telecommunications occupations all earn over $80,000.

For an overview of the average incomes associated with different professions, and the kinds of training needed to enter each of these fields, have a look at the Service Canada website, at

Don’t go to university without considering all of the options—including the option of not going to university. Other opportunities may turn out to be more suited to you, and not because you are a poor student, or these are somehow lesser occupations or educations. Our society will not grind to a halt if somewhat fewer young people choose to study anthropology, but we’ll be in more than a spot of trouble if we run out of folks who know how to fix cars, airplanes and electrical power plants.

But then again, maybe you are the sort of person who should go to university. I was. Millions of Canadians are. And maybe you are the sort of person who should enrol in one of those majors that, statistics say, is likely to lead into a somewhat less well-paying job. That was me, too. And I think it’s turned out pretty well. I found the answer that was right for me.

There is more than one way to make a life that will be intellectually satisfying, emotionally fulfilling and financially rewarding. Choosing to acquire more learning, more knowledge and more skills is never a bad choice. University is one of the best places to do that. I strongly suggest that you go. But before you do, remember that it’s not the only way to learn lessons that will change your life. M