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University students increasingly interested in outcomes

While a university’s reputation remains an important factor, students are increasingly pragmatic and are contemplating what they will get out of their education.

In the classroom, pharmacology and toxicology students at the University of Toronto learn about the scientific and therapeutic aspects of drugs. Thanks to the service learning component of their course, they put those lessons to use on the front lines of the Toronto Harm Reduction Task Force and treatment centres.

“Learning by experience is becoming more and more an integral part of the university culture,” says Lisa Chambers, director of U of T’s Centre for Community Partnerships. Students in a broad range of disciplines are signing up for courses that offer a service learning component.

Once considered the domain of community colleges, service learning has exploded at U of T over the past five years. The number of courses offering students an out-of-classroom component has grown dramatically. Nearly 2,000 students participated over the past academic year.

“Students are in a pretty competitive environment and feel this kind of experience will help set them apart,” she says. “Some want to try on a career.”

While a university’s reputation remains an important factor, students are increasingly pragmatic and are contemplating what they will get out of their education.

“More universities that offer co-op programs are trying to grow those offerings because they’re increasingly critical to students who want both the opportunity to do a bit of earning while at school but also who want that work experience to ensure they’re employable upon graduation,” says Ken Steele of Academica.

A London-based research marketing firm, Academica tracks the trends in what students are looking for in a university through its annual survey of university and college applicants in Canada and the United States.

Outcomes are important to this generation of students, many of whom have their sights set on a government job upon graduation because it’s seen as a “safe career route,” says Steele. As tuition has increased, students and their parents are more conscious that university education is an investment and want to ensure it offers a good return.

“Students are fixated on those programs that have the most certain returns on investment,” Steele says. “Programs like nursing that can promise 95% employment are much more appealing to students and they will travel further to get into a nursing program because they’re very competitive programs on most college and university campuses.”

More and more students are commuting to university and are less interested in university life than previous generations. “They’re more interested in the outcome than the process,” says Steele. “They’re going to university to further their career training rather than because they want to be scholars.”

The evolution of universities is another interesting trend, particularly in areas like northern Ontario, Atlantic Canada, Manitoba and Saskatchewan where universities are facing a projected decline in enrolment, says Steele.

Even in Alberta — where students are wooed by high-paying jobs right out of high school — universities are forgoing tradition in a bid to meet the needs of this generation. “The University of Alberta is coming up with modular degree programs — students can come for eight months, go away for as long as they want, return for another eight months and so on. Their modular credentials add up to a degree over time,” says Steele.

“In other places, we’re seeing co-op programs or hybrid learning — a combination of online and in-person delivery — to try and make it easier for students to be employed while being an undergraduate.”