When will Starbucks require PhDs?

Consider the following news items:

  1. Bachelor degree, a requirement for filing clerks
  2. A higher percentage of those aged 18-24 enrolled in post secondary education
  3. Grade inflation in Ontario high schools
  4. Proposals to increase university enrollment

Alone each fact tells a particular story. Together they point to a malaise in the educational system and a failure to adjust to labour market conditions. This is the market in which our children and grandchildren will earn their living.

1. More jobs are advertised today with an undergraduate degree as a requirement. This could be due to a combination of existing and new jobs needing more education, and/or a glut in the labour market (higher unemployment) allowing employers to ask for more education.


Other studies show that those with more than one degree have a significant lifetime income advantage over those with one degree – See “Can the Middle Class be Saved?” Atlantic, Sept. 2011.

2. The proportion of those, age 18-24, attending post secondary institutions has increased significantly over the past 30 years. This is a result of expanding the places available in universities and community colleges. As long as standards remain unchanged, then the increased enrollment means that more qualified students can now attend these institutions. However, if standards are lower then, less qualified students are being enrolled. The latter seems to be the case.

3. The screening mechanism for Ontario students applying to attend universities is the grade 12 course average received. These grades are assigned by each school. Averages in the 90’s are not uncommon and many universities in Ontario have a cutoff point in the 80’s. There is a strong incentive for schools to assign high marks in order that their students will be accepted into universities. Parents, students and their teachers have an interest in these higher grades and grade inflation has occurred since the removal of the standardized test.

In the 1960s, Ontario high school students wrote a standardized test in their final year. Those who scored 80% were named Ontario scholars and received a cheque for $100. By the 1970s, the standardized test was abolished and today each school grades its own students. Teachers warned that grade inflation would ensue and it did. From less than 20% of students being Ontario scholars, the number rose to 40% by 1980 to 60% in 2010. When it is suggested returning to a standardized test, teachers and principals oppose the move, because they feel their teaching and school is being evaluated, which it is. But the grades attained are a result of both the quality of teaching and the caliber of the students.

When students move to first year university, there is often a drop in grades and sometimes failure. Some argue that first year university has become an extension of high school, as students are required to do remedial work to come up to university standards. This tends to make the undergraduate degree less valuable and reinforces the view that at least two degrees are necessary to prosper in today’s workforce.

4.  Those, often politicians, who propose expanding the size of university enrollment would aggravate the present problem due to the absence of standardized high school exams, grade inflation leading to the waste of university resources, and the demand by employers for credentials where previously they were not required. For a list of studies of grade inflation in Ontario see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grade_inflation#Ontario


One Response to “When will Starbucks require PhDs?”

  1. cmaule Says:

    This comment is written by Don McFetridge.
    “I agree with your post. You raise two seemingly contradictory points. An undergraduate degree is increasingly seen as a condition of employment but the value of an undergraduate degree at least as an indicator of intellectual achievement appears to have declined. Perhaps a post-secondary degree signals something else. In any event, to the extent that a post-secondary degree is seen as a union card, there will be increased political pressure to make sure that everyone has one. This is where we are now and it takes us back to two issues you have raised before. These are developing more efficient means of delivering instruction and reforming certification (credentialization). With respect to the latter, here is an Acheson-type problem. What type of institution would be least vulnerable to pressures for grade inflation?

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