Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Liberal Arts Catch-Up Revisited

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Liberal Arts Catch-Up Revisited

Article excerpt

Introduction

Some of the most heartening news for those who believe in the value of a liberal arts education was a finding from the first panel (1993) of Statistics Canada's Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics (SLID). Using these data Giles and Drewes (2002) showed that, although liberal arts graduates encounter more difficulties than applied-field graduates do in entering the labour force at a level appropriate for the university educated and suffer more job transitions and spells of unemployment over the first half-dozen years, by midcareer a catch-up occurs. Their sample was divided into under age 25 (hence recent labour force entrants), 25 to 34 (early career), 35 to 44 (up to mid-career) and 45, and over (midcareer and beyond) and showed that income as computed as hourly-wage equivalent was a little higher by age 45 on for those with humanities and social sciences backgrounds than for applied program graduates. Although initially reported in the Statistics Canada house publications Perspectives on Labour and Income and Educational Quarterly Review, the Giles and Drewes finding received additional coverage in the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations Forum (Drewes, 2002). The study was noticed within both academic research (Frank and Walters, 2012, p. 97) and in the popular media such as the Globe and Mail (September 24, 2001, p. B8). Echoes of this same catch-up pattern can be seen in the 1996 census data analyzed by Axelrod, Anisef, and Lin (2001, Tables 2 and 3), where field of study differences in employment success narrowed when comparison was limited to those aged 30 and over. Heisz (2001) found income convergence by 1997 for graduates of British Columbia universities tracked from convocations dating 1974 onward. Catch-up, sometimes referred to as "sleeper effect," is an important consideration within the subfield of research known as "horizontal stratification" (Gerber and Cheung, 2008; Torche, 2011, p. 768) in postsecondary education, one of the "two axes of stratification within higher education," noted by Davies and Guppy (1997, p. 1419).

Despite the encouraging finding for catch-up, the more dominant message in research and discussion on liberal arts education has been concern about under- and unemployment among humanities and social science graduates. This view has persisted through the 1990s and 2000s up to the present day and has found expression within both academic literature (Coates and Morrison, 2011, p. 37-39; Côté and Allahar, 2007, 2011; Finnie, 2001, p. 117; Finnie and Frenette, 2003; Frenette, 2004; Livingstone, 1999; Walters, 2004a) and in the popular media such as The Globe and Mail (May 1, 2012, A13; August 30, 2012, B4). Several such discussions convey growing doubts about how well modern universities teach the basic liberal arts skills of communication and reasoning to undergraduates, an issue examined by Arum and Roska (2011). There is also a feeling that the economy needs more science-technology graduates and fewer from the humanities and social sciences (Coates and Morrison (2011, p. 207-20-9). Meanwhile catch-up was notably not mentioned in the important state-of-the-field review article by Gerber and Cheung (2008).

Different streams of research seem to be failing to inform each other on this topic. Perhaps those who comment on problems with higher education are neglecting to absorb the importance of research such as Giles and Drewes', due to a fixation with recent graduates and the neglect of the longer time frame. For example, if deans of arts or social science faculties are consistently hearing tales of struggle from their recent graduates, this may override a more encouraging message from Statistics Canada surveys of the full adult age range. Years ago R.B. Freeman (1971, 1976) showed that the labour market for recent university graduates is inherently unstable, with a constant attempt by the future to catch up with the past. Livingstone (2009, p. 312) argues that higher education and the labour market are "quite different systems" with "different objectives, functions, and time horizons. …

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