How much do degrees cost?

Data from Statistics Canada shows that the earning premium of having a post-secondary education will eventually outweigh the cost.

Nationally, full-time students paid, on average, $6,693 in tuition for the 2021/2022 academic year. The average tuition fee for the humanities was $5,754, while business, management and public administration students paid $6,991. Meanwhile, physical sciences, life sciences and technologies undergraduate students paid $6,246 on average.

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What is the earning potential?

A 2020 study conducted by Statistics Canada — tracking the earnings of students five years after graduating — found that graduates of engineering programs rank at or near the top in terms of median earnings. In fact, out of the top 10 earning degrees, engineering fields are seven out of 10 for women and six out of 10 for men. The top earning field for men was mining and mineral engineering graduates, who earned a median of $111,533.

By contrast, most degrees in the lowest median earnings were in arts or humanities. Eight out of the lowest 10 for both genders were in arts or humanities. For men, drama/theatre arts were the lowest paying field, at $35,935. For women, those who studied bilingual, multilingual and multicultural education in their undergrad made $19,892.

Largest enrolments in business, but dropping for humanities

The earning potential may be factoring into enrolment trends as well. A 2021 Higher Education Strategy Associates report shows that while there are Canadians continuing to major in English literature or philosophy, the enrolment in humanities is decreasing.

The humanities had greater enrolment from 1990 to 2010, followed by a 21% decline in the next decade. This is while fields such as business and engineering continued to see rising enrolment from 2009-2019.

From 1992 to 2018, the most popular category for student enrolment was “business studies,” while engineering and health saw the most important long-term growth.

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Growing trend of STEM graduates needing humanities

As students shift away from studying the arts, some believe we shouldn’t think of sciences versus humanities as a zero sum game.

“We need STEAM skills in the world, with 'A' standing for arts,” says Alex Norman, an angel investor and the managing director of TechTO.

“An English lit or philosophy major will bring a different perspective to the world and skills around creativity, critical thinking and logic.”

While the skills obtained from humanities are valuable, they aren’t the type of hard skills employers look forward to on a resume, explains Norman.

“I think they[the humanities] are still worth pursuing as they could pay off in the long run, but they should be complemented by working experience or additional education in STEM related fields,” he says.

Isabel Pedersen, director of the Digital Life Institute at Ontario Tech University, explains that humanities allows scholars and students the freedom to study the past, present and future. Pedersen also says that artificial intelligence is now dabbling into the pillars that make humanities.

“With AI now entering very personal spheres of augmentation, such as emotional and sensory enhancements, it is vital humanities scholars enter the conversation from the first moment designs are conceptualized,” she explains.

Benefits of the humanities and science together

“I also see a growing number of STEM programs recognizing that their students will benefit from exposure to the humanities and the arts to develop many of the same skills,” said Robert B. Townsend.

Townsend oversees the day-to-day work on the Humanities Indicators, a recognized source in the U.S. for non-partisan information on the state of the humanities.

“Too often, people assume that STEM and the humanities are an either/or choice. The evidence shows students and society benefit when we have both.”

Townsend also mentioned a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that questions the artificial separation of academic disciplines.

The overlap may be more common than you think. Studying humanities doesn't stop students from going to medical school for example. Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan, recalled having students who have studied history prior to medical school while having their prerequisite science covered.

“Studying the humanities as an undergraduate opens the world to you,” said Cole, who has done research in 11 languages. “It doesn't close it off…...It is a kind of springboard for all kinds of other activities.”

Pressure to study STEM

Even if there’s a clear need and benefit to studying both fields, there’s still a prevalent attitude around an arts degree.

“If I think back to my years in university, 30 years ago, there were already jokes that were made that anything to do with art, humanities or social sciences was treated as a second tier when it came to the precision of the technical elements that came into life science or engineering,” says Lucas Chang.

Chang is the founder and director of the Markham-based Y2 Entrepreneurship Labs. Y2 teaches Grade 6 to 8 students problem-solving and entrepreneurial skills.

He's seen situations where children expressed a preference for the arts, instead of science, where the parents preferred the latter. He doesn’t interfere with parents and their decisions over their children, but tries to impart certain pearls of wisdom to help give students clarity for career options.

“Think about what problems do I want to solve in the world? And what skills do I need to be able to sufficiently solve those problems? And how am I going to get those skills?”

He says students should try as many different things as they can, from volunteering, part-time jobs, to networking or classes.

“Look at the world as almost like a dim sum or tapas. Try this, try that,” he said.

“And with every experience, you reflect on what you liked and what you didn't like, and learn about what you want to do for a living.”

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About the Author

Dina Al-Shibeeb

Dina Al-Shibeeb

Staff Writer

Dina Al-Shibeeb is an award-winning journalist with hyperlocal and international experience in various news formats. She began her reporting career covering the Arab Spring and its aftermath for a Dubai-based news station. She has since worked in Canadian media, covering municipal affairs in Vaughan, Ont., for Metroland Media. Her work has also appeared at the Toronto Star.

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