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In my opinion

The lost generation of university graduates

Their grades are mediocre, so it’s tough to promote themselves to employers and grad schools.


According to poet T.S. Eliot, April is the cruelest month. And this indeed is so for many recent university graduates, and some not so recent. By April many of the students who completed studies in 2013 have had nearly a year of experience in the labour market. Sadly, too many had their dreams of landing a full-time job related to their studies shattered. Some have found no employment at all. Most are underemployed in precarious jobs. A few are in danger of having to declare bankruptcy before even starting full-time employment.

By now, many recent graduates realize that choices made several years earlier have come to haunt them. Low grades earned because of decisions to hold two-part time jobs to minimize student loans, or so they could purchase the latest consumer products, become insurmountable barriers to a successful transition from school to work.

Faced with dismal employment prospects, and the possibility of defaulting on loan payments, often recent graduates consider returning to school. However, for many the door to further education is barred.

Professional programs, such as law and business, demand a demonstrated record of undergraduate achievement. Grades of B+ or A are required for entrance to most professional schools, in addition to high scores on admissions tests. Master’s programs in the social science and humanities do not require stellar grades, but they reject students with a middling C.

It is no secret that is difficult to fail an undergraduate course in university. A modicum of effort will ensure a passing grade, like a D or C. Professors see themselves as coaches helping students to make progress, rather than general managers who fire poor performers.

But too many students are under the impression that having a BA is the key that will open doors to employment and further studies. This impression, fostered by parents and universities, evaporates in the months after convocation when employers and graduate programs show no interest in recent graduates who have earned marginal or even average grades. Employers and graduate programs rightly view As and Bs on transcripts as evidence of commitment, keen understanding, and creativity. The Cs and Ds are interpreted as putting in time, lack of originality, and poor communication skills.

The consequences of poor and often uninformed decisions made by students in their late teens and early 20s are long lasting. Selecting an unsuitable program of study (sometimes because of parental pressure), minimizing student debt by maximizing employment income, and believing that merely graduating guarantees success are choices that cannot be overturned.

The dilemma for the large number of graduates with average grades is to demonstrate that indeed they have the potential and passion to hone their skills and can make valuable contributions at a workplace or in a classroom; in other words, they need to convince employers and graduate programs that they have become more serious, focused and mature since graduation. But it is tough for these grads to argue that an academic transcript is an ancient document that divulges little about the present or future.

Many employers expect young workers to remain with an organization for only a few years, and see little benefit in providing on-the-job training. At the same time, admission to graduate programs is more competitive than ever because many Canadians do realize that a BA is not a sufficient credential for success in the workplace.

To avoid a lost generation of Canadians – along with the waste of human capital and tax monies – governments, universities and employers must turn their attention to the plight recent graduates.

  • Governments need to review student assistance programs, especially for the most disadvantaged students and reform loan repayment schedules. Providing financial incentives as part of student loans for strong academic performance, and placing strict limits on the amount of employment income that students receiving loans may earn, will encourage young people to focus on their studies.
  • Universities need to more intensively counsel students, better identify students at risk of making poor decisions, and provide “second-chance” programs of study.
  • Employers must be more meticulous and shrewder in their hiring processes, as well as invest in the training and mentoring of young workers.

These measures, which entail little cost and should be best practices, will provide young Canadians with the guidance about priorities that they require, and desire.

Thomas Klassen is a professor of political science at York University.

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  1. Stephanie Boychuk / April 2, 2014 at 14:27

    University instructors are being pushed to be coaches. The K-12 system encourages students and parents to expect that treatment, and it is being demanded of PSE.

    You cannot have your cake and eat it too. There have been many articles about how students are unprepared for the demands of PSE, and PSE has been changing to accommodate those students. If we want instructors to behave as “general managers who fire poor performers” then we need to empower them to act that way, and demand K-12 prepare students the same way.

    I do agree that there should be some kind of “second-chance” system at universities. I think job-based term or year-long courses would improve the transcript of many students, and show their commitment to the jobs they are applying for.

  2. Andrew Gow / April 2, 2014 at 14:27

    Students require an average of B+ or higher to get into graduate programs in Arts (social sciences and humanities) at the University of Alberta. If that’s not the case at York (and I think it actually is), it ought to be.

  3. Paul Sileika / April 2, 2014 at 15:04

    I agree with Stephanie. K-12 certainly needs to instill a more realistic worldview. I would rather students be taught that they are capable over being told that they are special.

  4. James Mars / April 2, 2014 at 15:28

    (Part 2 of 2)

    As Thomas Klaasen noted, students need to concentrate on doing well — even if financial hardship ensues, even if they have to take a year off school to repair their financial situation. There are other helpful routes: students can transfer between majors at many universities without losing all credits completed, or they can transfer to a different university when they find the field that they really want to pursue. They can take transfer credits at community college, although Ontario does not have a smoothly integrated system such as those in California, Florida, and other jurisdictions. Some BA graduates should strongly consider community college programs aimed at those who already hold a BA degree or who have completed another community college diploma program. And another possibility is for BA graduates whose grades do not quite meet current standards to get some sort of related job and then, after several years of experience, apply to graduate programs citing their experience. A final route is to consider graduate programs in the U.S. and abroad which may have more flexibility in admissions (translation: they have spaces available and they know that Ontario universities are adequate preparation).

    Some undergraduate programs have created a variety of routes to the completion of a professional degree. For example, Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson has three routes to a Bachelor of Urban and Regional Planning: four-years from high school, 2 calendar years after a BA in another field, or 2 calendar years after one of a small number of community college programs. The Ryerson Planning program also offers a 2-year Master’s degree in Planning — but again the student applying faces the B+ or better barrier for admission.

    And graduates of all such programs will have to consider continuing professional education, added advanced degrees and certificates — the field is constantly changing and adapting.

    So the “myth of the BA” shows that students, no matter where they are in the education process, need to do research on their own skills and interests, need to get as much related voluntary and paid experience as they can, and need to look at a wide variety of possible programs.

  5. James Mars / April 2, 2014 at 15:30

    (Part 1 of 2)

    For universities as well as for aspiring students, the “myth of the BA” often has disappointing outcomes.

    For institutions, expanding the number of students in BA programs is less costly than expanding the capacity in undergraduate professional programs. Arts classes can be made a little larger, adjunct faculty and graduate students can do more of the grading and advising. Without the need for more science and engineering laboratories, better computer systems and software, more architecture, design, and urban planning studio space and clients, nor the need for more clinical placements in nursing and other human services fields, the easy route is just to educate more BA students.

    When the Province asks for more spaces, as it did famously during the double cohort years, universities offer more spaces in BA programs in the social sciences and humanities.

    Students, too, often choose to pursue degrees in the social sciences and humanities because they are unsure of what professional field or career might suit them in the end. They may also be uncertain of their own ability and interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. They also anticipate that they will be able to pursue professional education at the graduate level — not realizing how well they must do academically during those four years in order to be eligible for law school, business school, archtecture school, planning school, or medical school.

    High school advisors (the few that remain in place), university and departmental administrators and admissions officers, all need to make clear to those approaching university that there are differences between arts degree programs and undergraduate professional or pre-professional programs. The professional bachelor’s programs provide serve a dual purpose: proper preparation for a career OR a university degree which provides the skills and knowledge appropriate for a different career or different graduate-level education if desired.