Higher education still worth the money, new research suggests

Graduates of Canadian universities and colleges tend to see their salaries rise quickly over time, new research out of the University of Ottawa suggests.

Grads make more money in virtually every discipline, but gender gap remains

University and college graduates see their incomes increase sharply in the years following convocation, new numbers suggest. (University of Manitoba)

Graduates of Canadian universities and colleges tend to see their salaries rise quickly over time, new research out of the University of Ottawa suggests.

According to the Education Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa, higher education is linked to higher salaries almost regardless of the subject. 

A study published Tuesday looked at income data for 620,000 graduates of 14 Canadian universities and colleges between 2005 and 2013 to gauge the impact of higher education on future employment income.

Overall, the numbers show post-secondary education seems to be worth it, down the line, in terms of boosting future salaries.

Data going back to 2005

Study subjects who graduated from university in 2005, on average, made $45,200 in inflation-adjusted terms in their first year after school. That figure rose every year after that, growing by a total of 66 per cent to $74,900 in 2013.

"The growth in earnings over time is especially striking, and shows the value of following graduates for longer periods in order to get a proper assessment of their outcomes," Prof. Ross Finnie said of the results.

College grads started off a little lower, but they too saw their incomes increase steadily as the years go on. The average salary for a new college grad was $33,900 in inflation-adjusted terms in 2005. By 2013, that figure had grown by 59 per cent to reach $54,000.

"Very few graduates had truly barista-level earnings even to start, and they increasingly moved even further from that level as they gained labour market experience," the report said.

While graduates of the so-called STEM subjects — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — in general had higher salaries, even grads of oft-maligned subjects in the humanities and social sciences degrees saw higher incomes than those who didn't get degrees.

"There are these myths and preconceptions about the value of post-secondary degrees in these fields," Finnie said in an interview. "But the reality is they're doing OK, too."

Gender wage gap exists

The numbers show, however, that there is a wage gap between the genders that widens over time. The average male university graduate in 2005 earned $46,800 in the first year after convocation. Female classmates made almost as much, $44,000.

But eight years later, those averages are wide apart. The typical male university student who graduated eight years previously was earning $89,800 in 2013, an increase of 91 per cent since convocation. His female former classmate, however, saw her salary only increase by 42 per cent in that time, to $62,500.

That means the wage gap grew over time from about six per cent to almost 30 per cent within the first eight years in the working world.

College grads saw a similar trend, with first-year male grads earning $36,700 on average in 2005 and $65,600 by 2013, while female grads in 2005 earned $31,200 on average, a figure which grew to only $42,000 eight years later.

Finnie said the findings don't attempt to come up with reasons for the discrepancy, but in an interview with CBC, he suggested the subject is worthy of further study.

"To some extent these gaps are because men and women study different things," he said, noting that there are few women in engineering, a field with consistently high salaries. "But once you are in the same area of study, what's going on?"

He also suggested that often, women's salaries are reduced over time because they take time outside the workforce to raise families. But that, too, is an incomplete explanation. 

"Why is the social pressure on the young woman to cut back?" Finnie said.