Hundreds of thousands of teenagers across the country are about to make one of the most consequential decisions of their lives: choosing university and college programs to further their education.
They will typically talk to parents, friends and guidance counsellors about the reputation of the schools and programs they’re interested in attending. They will peruse websites to learn about entrance requirements or on-campus amenities. They might even look at the Maclean’s university rankings.
What they won’t have is any useful information about the outcomes of these programs.
For instance, prospective learners cannot easily compare the graduation rate of sociology students at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax with that at Simon Fraser in Vancouver.
Nor can they weigh the types of jobs, average earnings and student-debt levels of graduates from a four-year computer-science degree at the University of Waterloo versus a two-year computer technology diploma at George Brown College in Toronto or a 12-week web development boot camp at tech education company Lighthouse Labs.
Investment manager and author Ryan Craig writes regularly about the need for change in traditional higher education as it relates to the workforce. He describes choosing a post-secondary program as “beset by asymmetric information.” Universities and colleges (and often governments) either choose not to make outcomes data available or do not collect it at all.
Undoubtedly, the post-secondary experience is about more than employment and economic returns. But shouldn’t prospective students, preparing to invest tens of thousands of dollars and to make a years-long time commitment be equipped to assess the value of their investment? This is especially true for students from low-income households.
This “black box” of higher education outcomes in Canada is not just a problem for students. It is a big blind spot for governments, which invest billions in post-secondary education every year.
It’s also problematic for institutions, employers and workforce system planners, as well as for a public that is increasingly skeptical of the social and economic returns to higher education.
It finds a number of practical, if not wonky, problems: Post-secondary data is inconsistent and often inaccessible across provinces. Comparisons are not possible across universities and colleges, or with apprenticeships. Outcomes information for specific institutions and programs is not made available.
The absence of data about graduate skills and job outcomes means we cannot assess how different types of post-secondary education meet labour market demands – a troubling gap in our rapidly evolving economy.
Canada can draw lessons from the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. These countries all have:
- National networks and institutions dedicated to post-secondary data collection and outcomes reporting;
- Timely, nationally comparable data available through dedicated bodies such as the U.K.’s Higher Education Statistics Agency;
- Transparency tools for students and other users that allow comparison of institutions and programs nationally, for example, the S. College Scorecard and Australia’s ComparED.
Innovative higher-education policy research is a key byproduct for these countries. The U.S. example, in particular, demonstrates the power of robust data in driving analysis and debate about higher education’s value and informing public policy.
How can Canadian governments and post-secondary institutions catch up with their international peers? Some recommendations on how to improve outcomes tracking in national post-secondary education include:
- Make better tracking of pan-Canadian data and outcomes a post-secondary policy priority – with buy-in from governments and mandates for important bodies, including the Canadian Education Statistics Council, Labour Market Information Council and Statistics Canada.
- Develop a means for national, open access to education data – for example, a public utility responsible for the collection, curation and sharing of raw data.
- Use government funding and regulatory levers to compel post-secondary institutions to report comparable outcomes.
- Link post-secondary outcomes data with labour market information to understand how (and if) education programs and credentials are addressing employer demand for talent in the economy.
- Equip students, workers and advisers, such as parents and career guidance professionals, to make critical education decisions by using data to develop digital navigation tools and inform “learning-to-career” guidance services.
The issue of Canada’s poor post-secondary data is admittedly not on the agenda at the moment. But it needs to be. The stakes are just too high for Canada’s post-secondary future, its labour market development and, most importantly, to do right by the next generation of students.