06 November 2011

Inflated expectations: Are students living in a dream?

There's a big gap between what young adults expect versus what they really will get in their lives.

In terms of educational attainment, I think the vast majority of high school students in Canada expect to get a high school diploma, at the least.  A vast majority of them probably want to go to college too (78% according to ACT in Spring 2004, but that's in USA, though it's probably roughly similar in Canada).

But looking at just the Canadian population, between the ages of 20 to 24 years, by highest certificate, diploma or degree attained in 2006, we see that based on the 2006 Census, only:

  • 43.3% (896 570 out of 2 071 895) achieved some kind of post-secondary qualification (trades certificate, diploma below bachelor level, PhD, etc.)
  • 35.9% (744 375 out of 2 071 895) achieved some kind of college, CEGEP or other non-university certificate or diploma, or university certificate, diploma or degree
  • 16.6% (344 795 out of 2 071 895) achieved some kind of university certificate, diploma or degree
  • 42.9% (889 275 out of 2 071 895) achieved only a high school certificate or equivalent
  • 13.8% (286 050 out of 2 071 895) achieved no certificate, diploma or degree at all
So roughly 78% or so expect to get a college or higher degree, but only 35.9% actually get anything of the sort.

In fact, more students achieved only a high school certificate or equivalent (42.9%) than actually attained their dream of a college or higher degree.  And 56.7% of students will have achieved at most just a high school certificate or equivalent.

Even for those students who enter university. Of those who are planning to get an engineering or science degree, "Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students ... end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree" (Why Science Majors Change Their Minds), "That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students...are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors" (ibid.).

Now in terms of earnings expectation, "On average, students expect to earn over $70,000 ... and almost three quarters expect to purchase a home within ten years" (BCSC News Release 2011 Oct 31).

That's the expectation of students surveyed, and "Over 90% of those surveyed were enrolled in post secondary courses" (ibid.), all according to the National Report Card on Youth Financial Literacy from the British Columbia Securities Commission.

The actual average income of 25 to 29-year-olds with post-secondary degrees, according to the 2006 census, is actually $31 648, while only 42% of them will own homes (Financial Post).

The contrast between expectation and reality is stark.  It's like young adults are living in a dream, where they'll go on to college, make big money, and own a home.  In fact, the vast majority won't.

Some of the complaints from people at Occupy XYZ protests seems to show their bewilderment when they arrive at adulthood only to find their dream was just that, a dream.  Matt Gurney, for example, attributes this to financial illiteracy and teachers who, he claims, are financially illiterate themselves due to their "well-above average salary, spectacular benefits, generous defined benefit pensions".

Matt is, of course, factually wrong - at least in part.  Teachers in Calgary, for example, don't have defined benefit pensions.  And even if students were financially literate to the point of understanding budgets, taxes, and income statistics, it still may not change their expectations of what they will get.  The reverse is, by the way, also possible --- students can have expectations that are in line with reality without being financially literate --- they are orthogonal issues.

Why?  For the same reason some very smart people buy lottery tickets --- "I expect I will win at some point".  They simply have irrational expectations.  We're human, and that's normal.

I'm reminded of something a financial advisor said to me though.  A large part of his job was to manage clients' expectations.

What students, children, teens, and young adults need --- if we want them to have more reasonable expectations of their future --- is to have their expectations managed.  That's the job of parents and teachers.

To what extent should parents and teachers manage their children's and students' expectations?  That's another issue altogether.

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