The value of a U of T degree

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]ver since I was a high school freshman, there was little doubt in my mind that I would end up at U of T. The campus environment, international reputation, downtown Toronto location, and vast range of programs were just some of the factors I took into consideration when choosing a university. On top of that, I knew that it would give me the option to commute from home.

Everyone at U of T sees value in the school for different reasons, so it’s difficult to put a dollar amount on how much a U of T degree — and the U of T experience —  is worth. The valuation of factors, such as the people you meet and how far away from home you are, are often personal, and the rewards relating to these factors are often intangible.

Nonetheless, I explored what students are receiving when they get a degree here, what it means to attend a highly ranked institution, and what a U of T education may look like under the province’s upcoming changes to its university funding formula.

Financial outcomes

Glen Jones, Professor of Higher Education and the Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, explained that data collected from Statistics Canada comparing salary and income levels between secondary school graduates and university graduates from various programs have found that those with undergraduate degrees do better than those without. Long-term income is more debatable, he said, because people often switch professional fields during their lifetime.

“The question is: what happens to you after your first job?” said Jones. “There’s been some data that suggests that those in liberal arts actually catch up along their way, so their initial jobs may have lower incomes but they may catch up along the way as they move onto other careers. The challenge is that the career structure keeps changing.”

A study published in July 2016 by the Education Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa looked into the earnings of 2005 graduates over eight years. It found that between 2005 and 2013, graduates with bachelor’s degrees saw earnings increase by an average of 66 per cent, from $45,200 to $74,900. For humanities and social science graduates, the figure was 73.8 and 70.5 per cent respectively. Although people like to picture liberal arts graduates working as baristas, the data shows otherwise.

“If your undergraduate degree is in philosophy or classics, you’re not heading in a profession that involves classics or philosophy,” said Jones. “But you have a set of critical thinking skills and maybe a set of communications skills and other skillsets that are quite attractive in, whether it’s business or some other field.”

Rankings and reputation

A major selling point for U of T is how highly the school ranks in various world rankings lists. In most major ranking lists, U of T has placed first in Canada and within the top 30 universities internationally. With each new ranking list released, the university’s communications department wastes no time showing off U of T’s position among fellow universities.

But aside from providing ego boosts for students and a steady supply of positive PR for the university, what do these rankings actually accomplish?

Jones noted that many of these rankings focus on research and reputation, rather than the quality of the education that students receive. “In terms of educational quality, I’m not sure it makes a big difference,” he said. “My general sense is that all Canadian universities are quite good.”

He explained further that “sometimes, the most important decision is moving away from home, and that’s a life choice. And maybe that’s more important than going to a university that’s number 12 or number 146.”

When it comes to choosing a school, Jones believes the rankings should only be a “modest factor” taken into account in comparison to other factors, such as relative program strengths and university location.

On the other hand, world rankings can make a huge difference when it comes to recruiting international students — who make up approximately 20 per cent of the student body at U of T.

“The existence of international students on campus has a big impact on the university’s revenue and that must have a big impact on what the university is able to provide to students,” explained  Jones. “If we didn’t have those international students and relied only on government money and domestic tuition, I think the university would look very different.”

The rankings, Jones argued, are fundamental to U of T’s ability to attract international students from around the world. “If the university was not in the rankings anywhere, our ability to attract international students from… other parts of the world would be highly diminished,” he said.

The day after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, U of T’s admissions website reported a spike in traffic. Subsequently, the university saw a 24 per cent increase in international applicants with a 71 per cent increase in applications from American students for the 2017–2018 cycle.

Jones also said, however, that it is too early to tell what the effects of increased attention to U of T as a result of political shifts in the US could be.

“It’s just a question on how big a change… and how long-lasting it is, and we just don’t know the answer to these questions,” he said. “That’s just the political reality. Whether that means that Canada will be advantaged by that, I’d like to think so, but we’ll see.”

A new funding formula

The province of Ontario has been in negotiations with post-secondary institutions to modernize its funding formula for universities. Currently, funding is provided to universities on the basis of enrollment — with more funding allocated to schools with higher enrolment — but the province is considering adding outcome metrics such as graduation rates. These stipulations are laid out between the province and each university in what are called strategic mandate agreements.

“It’s part of the strategy that the province wants to create a university sector where there are more differences between institutions, and they want the universities to essentially say what they think they’re really good at and what their priorities are, and the provinces are using that as a foundation for trying to differentiate the system,” said Jones.

In addition, the university is considering cuts to admissions over the next five to seven years. Given the fact that tuition and government funding tied to enrolment make up about two-thirds of the university’s revenue, it raises the question of what effects a new funding formula could have on the kind of education students can come to expect in the future.

“If your undergraduate degree is in philosophy or classics, you’re not heading in a profession that involves classics or philosophy”

“The last thing the province wants is to have a huge change to the funding arrangements that will cause huge instability to the system. So the changes will be incremental, and they will be relatively modest initially,” said Jones.

In an unpublished interview in April, The Varsity spoke to Andrew Thomson, U of T’s Chief of Government Relations, who weighed in on the prospects of a metric-based funding formula.

“We’ll each need to identify what [metrics] we think we need to be measured against and then, how does that fit our funding goals? We do have some unique pressures in the university because the way the funding formula recognizes each program as being relatively equal in weight,” he said.

Thomson also pointed out that some programs have smaller class sizes and more labs attached to them. With these distinctions, U of T would need to work with the province to make sure they can factor them in appropriately.

Jones does not believe there is a perfect funding formula; rather, he believes that the idea of a funding formula depends on what each university wishes to accomplish.

“My own sense is that it’s possible for governments to go overboard on using performance measures, and they sometimes end up with unintended consequences,” he continued. “If you suddenly decide that one thing is important  — and there’s a lot of money of the table — universities will do all they can to do that one thing. But they may neglect a whole bunch of other things.”

— With files from Aidan Currie