One way to measure students' satisfaction with their educational experience is to ask graduates, if they could choose again, would they select the same program.
Canada's National Graduates Survey (NGS) has been asking some variation on that question since 1982. The data has many limitations, as I explain in this post. But the little we can find out from readily-available data tells us this: most graduates, when asked, would select the same field of study again again, but graduates of some programs are more likely reaffirm their choices than others.
The first snapshot comes from 1982, when students were asked, two years post-graduation, "Given your experience since completing the requirements for the ____, would you have selected the same educational program, a different program, or not taken any post-secondary program?" My calculations using the NGS public use microfile suggest that the students most likely to say that they would choose the same program again were those in business, engineering, and the health professions, including medical school. Graduates of "other social sciences" and "biological sciences" were particularly unlikely to select the same program again. Humanities grads had some regrets, but not as many as social science grads [Oops - vertical axis mislabeled.]
The class of 1982 graduated into one of the worst labour markets since the Great Depression, so their experience might not be typical. Unfortunately the field of study information has not been included in the NGS public use microfiles since 1982. Fortunately, Employment and Social Development Canada has published selected tabulations from the 2013 NGS on Canada's open data portal here.
In 2013, graduates were asked, three years after graduation, "If you could choose again, would you select the same field of study or specialization that you completed?" Here are the results:
Thirty years on, the satisfaction patterns are remarkably consistent - graduates of fields such as social science, psychology, and biology are the least likely to make the same educational choices again. Among humanities graduates, 71.3% would chose the same field of study again, which is somewhat below the average for all bachelor's and first professional degree holders (73.9%). Business and management graduates have a fairly typical rate of satisfaction with their education (74.4% would choose the same again), but the people who are really pleased with their educational choices are graduates of health, education, engineering, and computer science programs. For example, 85.0% of engineering graduates would choose the same field of study again.
One possible reason why graduates of business schools, professional health programs, and engineering might be happy with their choice of program is that graduates from these programs typically have relatively high earnings (see, for example, Ross Finnie here, Marc Frenette and Kristyn Frank here, and Council of Ontario Universities here). Data from the 2005 NGS finds that there is a strong correlation between a graduate's earnings and the likelihood that they respond that they would select the same program again.
The graph above includes no controls. Further analysis with the 2005 data found that, after controlling for income, variables such as gender, language spoken at home, or parental education had no statistically significant effect on a graduate's likelihood of selecting the same program again (though as I will discuss in a later post, gender might have mattered more if I had used a different year's NGS data).
Earnings and employment prospects can explain why engineers and computer scientists would pick the same field of study again. But why might humanities graduates appear be more likely to say that they would select the same field of study again than graduates of, say, social and behavioural sciences, or even physical or life sciences? [caveat: I say "appear to be" because I only have tabulations for the 2013 data, and have not tried to manually crank through various tests to see the differences here are statistically significant.]
It could be that studying philosophy or history is a privilege that is associated with other forms of privilege - and thus subsequent success in the job market. For example, it is less risky to invest in a humanities degree if mom or dad can help with the job search after graduation. A very crude way of examining this hypothesis is with the 2011 National Household Survey, which provides information on immigrant status, visible minority status, home language, and a person's field of study in their highest degree. Looking only at bachelor's degree holders between the ages of 25 and 34, there is a strong relationship between field of study and family background:
(Note that this table excludes graduates who have gone on to, say, law school). Humanities graduates might be somewhat protected in the labour market relative to, say, physical and life science graduates, by their ethnicity or language skills. There are, however, only small and generally insignificant differences between humanities and social science graduates with respect to characteristics that can be observed in the National Household Survey.
Alternatively, it could be that humanities programs such as history or philosophy do a better job of teaching writing and critical thinking skills than do social science programs, and that explains any satisfaction differences between the two types of programs.
Another question raised by this analysis is who is to blame: whose fault is it that over a third of social science graduates are so dissatisfied with their field of study that, if doing their degree again, they would select a different field of study? That one third of physical and life science graduates are? Perhaps professors are to blame: we could teach different material, or teach the same material differently. Perhaps universities are to blame for selling innocent 17 and 18 year-olds on low-value credentials, or offering a hundred places in pre-med-type programs for every one spot in medical school. Or perhaps the blame lies with the restrictive admission practices of, for example, business schools. If my university's business school had a more open admissions policy, there would be fewer - and perhaps fewer unhappy - economics majors. Or perhaps this is all an artifact of the National Graduate Survey, which had a response rate below 50 percent. It might have over-sampled malcontents living in parental basements.
I don't know. What do you think?