is college a good idea

Despite some fine Yukon summer days, students know that the first day of school is fast approaching. The signs of autumn are morning frosts, snow on the mountaintops and increasingly obvious parental hints about university.

Despite some fine Yukon summer days, students know that the first day of school is fast approaching. The signs of autumn are morning frosts, snow on the mountaintops and increasingly obvious parental hints about university.

You will be making some big choices over the next few weeks. Should you attend one of the universities you applied to last winter? If you’re still in high school, should you take the more demanding university prep courses? Or, if you’re part of the Yukon’s high school graduation crisis, should you try to catch up? (Last year the auditor general released previously secret Department of Education statistics showing the six-year-average graduation rate for Yukon students was only 58 per cent.)

So here are some facts to help you with your decisions.

Since your parents made their decision to attend university or not, at some point when disco or dinosaurs ruled the planet, university has changed. Nearly a quarter of Canadians aged 20 to 24 were in full-time university in 2006. That’s been rising steadily from only 15 per cent in 1990. Applications are even higher this year, thanks to the recession.

The things you’ll have the chance to study have changed dramatically too. All kinds of new and interesting fields have evolved, from climate change to combined high tech/business programs to specialized health, parks and fitness programs (with enrolment in the latter fields up 32 per cent since 2002 to over 100,000 young Canadians).

The statistics highlight a few opportunities, too. Despite calls from business for more math and computer science grads, enrolment in those fields is down 29 per cent since 2002. Even if you snoozed through Economics 101, you know what high demand and low supply likely mean for the future salaries of those students.

Another change is that 58 per cent of the 1.1 million Canadians in university last year were women. Young men may find it easier to meet someone special on campus, rather than in an ATCO trailer camp 50 kilometres outside Fort McMurray (depending on your tastes, of course).

Furthermore, the business case for attending university remains strong. The median university grad in the Yukon made over $65,000 in 2006 while high school grads earned about $45,000. Over a 35-year career, the value today of that extra salary is around $350,000. That more than makes up for tuition and four years of lost wages.

On the other hand, if you decide not to go to university, the Yukon is a relatively good place to work. Nationally, workers without a high school diploma make 43 per cent less money than those with bachelor degrees. In the Yukon, they make only 36 per cent less.

One argument this columnist hears sometimes is that because so many kids are going to college, the pay will be lower in the future for well-educated workers. This is a fallacy, since there is no fixed number of “university jobs” in the country. Better-educated people tend to be more productive, producing goods and services with a higher value. Having more people like that makes the overall economy get larger.

A recent US study by McKinsey, a consultancy, illustrates this point. They estimate that if the US fixed its drop-out and high school under-achievement gaps with other leading countries, its gross domestic product would be more than $1.3-trillion higher (more than 10 per cent).

If the same ratio applied in the Yukon, that would represent an additional $150 million in economic activity here.

Those are big numbers, even bigger than the impact of the financial crisis so far. Which makes it all the more remarkable that students, parents, First Nation leaders, Yukon government politicians – pretty much everyone – aren’t taking the drop-out crisis more seriously.

So what does all this data suggest about your decision to attend university?

It means that this might be one of those rare occasions when your parents are right: you should attend.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. His next book Game On Yukon! was published in July.