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Half of recent graduates finished postsecondary education with debt, Statistics Canada reports

As COVID-19 continues to create economic challenges for young Canadians, StatCan releases data on student debt and graduate earnings.


Amid a global pandemic that’s left many struggling to make ends meet, Statistics Canada has released two relevant reports on the state of student debt in Canada and graduate earnings by field of study. The first document, which analyzes data from the 2018 National Graduates Survey (NGS), reveals that half of all recent postsecondary graduates incurred debt from their studies. This proportion has changed little since 2000.

The report notes that graduates with a doctoral degree were the least likely to have student debt (36 percent), but that professional degree holders – in law, medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, optometry and pharmacy – were the most likely to graduate with debt (85 percent) due to the high tuition fees of those programs. Additionally, 74 percent of graduates depended on government-sponsored student loans to pay for their education.

Graduates wrapped up their studies with a median of just under $18,000 in debt. Graduates of professional degree programs took on the highest median debt amount, at $60,000, which is three times that reported by students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree ($20,000) or with a master’s degree ($19,700). The amount of debt of professional degree graduates rose noticeably between 2000 and 2015, from $30,800 to $60,000. Graduates of college programs recorded the lowest median amount, taking on $11,500 in debt.

Field of study was also a factor, with those holding degrees in health and health-related programs being the most likely to have student debt at graduation. These graduates also had the highest median debt among bachelor’s, master’s and professional degree holders. The least likely graduates to have student debt were those who completed education programs at colleges; their median debt amount was only $9,200.

The report suggests that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, students may take on more debt to compensate for a likely loss of income. “Examining the debt load of young Canadians is particularly important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many students lost their jobs or had a work placement cancelled or delayed as a result of the pandemic,” the document states. And while the pandemic continues, many recent graduates are still trying to pay down their debt. In fact, two-thirds of students who graduated with debt in 2015 still had outstanding debt in 2018. Further, the report states that during these challenging economic times recent graduates may experience difficulties finding full-time employment, “which in turn may affect their ability to repay their student debt.”

Earnings by program, level of study

Offering some insight into what graduates might earn down the line to help pay off those debts, StatCan has also provided a “snapshot” of the labour market success of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs for women and men. In this report, on graduate earnings, StatCan states that the COVID-19 lockdown has resulted in record youth unemployment rates and could negatively affect postsecondary graduates for years to come, which is why it may be helpful for students to know how graduates faired before the pandemic.

According to StatCan, the top earners among bachelor’s degree graduates were in the field of engineering, with mining and mineral engineering graduates ranking first among men in median earnings five years after graduation ($111,533) and second among women ($89,680). Pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences and administration graduates had the highest median earnings for women ($94,177) and ranked second in earnings for male graduates ($106,055). Other high-earning disciplines for men were computer/information technology administration and management, mathematics and computer science; and for women, the high-earning disciplines were nursing, nursing administration, nursing research and clinical nursing, as well as management sciences and quantitative methods. The lowest-earning bachelor’s degree graduates were in the arts and humanities; for male graduates, it was drama/theatre arts and stagecraft ($35,935) and for women, bilingual, multilingual and multicultural education ($19,892).

Most top-earning graduates at the master’s level came from business programs. Five years after graduation, male graduates of finance and financial management services ($110,518), business administration, management and operations ($108,382), and accounting ($102,718) earned the most. Top female earners came from taxation ($94,416) and finance and financial management services ($92,956) programs. The lowest earners for master’s degree graduates were, like for those with bachelor’s degrees, in the arts or humanities. Doctoral graduates with the highest pay came from business, health, engineering, social sciences, and education programs, and the lowest earnings were in biological sciences. The report also points out that these rankings might change in the coming years, “as the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to alter the Canadian wage structure in ways that are yet to be determined.”

Notable for graduates or future graduates interested in a career in academia, StatCan is working on a detailed portrait (including gender, year of birth, subject taught, academic rank, salary and administrative stipends and responsibilities) of full-time academic staff at Canadian universities. StatCan recently released part of this data and says it will publish a final document, with data for all universities, this winter.

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  1. Rosanne Lopers / September 13, 2020 at 20:21

    Perhaps useful to do a follow-up article about the startling differences in earnings between men and women graduates. These disparities are difficult to absorb.