Well over 15,000 students will begin their studies at New Brunswick universities this week. This includes about 3,000 first-time university students and 2,400 international students. It is an exciting time for these students and their families, an important milestone charged with trepidation and excitement for the future. You can feel it on campus.
 
Students will be facing the challenges of new course material and how to manage their time, while parents are anxious about letting their children go. (Though many parents often say to me, they would enjoy the chance to study the courses their children are now taking.)
 
Beyond these emotions, one thing is certain. The benefits of a university education have never been clearer, nor have they been better quantified. These students will acquire skills and knowledge to succeed in an evolving job market, and what they learn and how they learn it will enrich their lives.  
 
Nationwide, more than one million university students are heading back to school, and 300,000 will graduate and enter the workforce in 2017. The jobs are there for them. Since 2008, 1.4 million net new jobs were created for university graduates. Today, 80 per cent of Canada’s top 25 jobs require a university degree.
 
A university degree means higher employment rates, career satisfaction, and higher earnings. It also means engaged young citizens. We know from surveys comparing universities that STU graduates will have significantly greater engagement with civic issues, environmental sustainability, and social diversity. Our graduates are more likely to support community causes and become involved in social justice issues.
 
Graduates are also ready to lead. The social sciences and humanities—the liberal arts—make up more than half of bachelors degrees among professional leaders across 30 countries. Younger leaders are also more likely to hold a degree in the social sciences or humanities.
 
These benefits are important. In New Brunswick, they are essential.  
 
It is a challenging period for post-secondary education. Budgets are under pressure and enrollments are affected by demographics. Our fiscal situation means we are operating under expenditure restraint. The challenge facing universities is to stay focused and make sure that government and stakeholders see the evidence of what post-secondary education means for individuals and our province.
 
While we are facing these challenges, there is much success to build on.  
 
This fall at STU, we expect another small increase in new undergraduate students. We expect to have our highest enrollment from high school students in three years, and an increase of international students. Our Education and Social Work programs are full. STU is also attracting students from more than 30 countries to New Brunswick.
 
Over 500 students graduated from STU this past spring and summer. These graduates are now starting their careers or entering graduate or professional schools. We know how successful liberal arts graduates can be in the workplace.
 
Employers increasingly value the so-called soft skills as much as technical knowledge. These 21st century skills include relationship-building, communication, and problem-solving, as well as analytical and leadership abilities.
 
A national survey of executives published last month found universities weren’t educating all the types of graduates required by business. The complaint from these 800 Canadian business leaders? Graduates don’t have sufficient communication, writing, or strategic-thinking skills. These executives need employees with broader analytical and communication skills; these are liberal arts graduates.  
 
Another new study demonstrates clear evidence of the economic value placed on these skills. These higher-order skills sought by employers pay off in earnings growth.
 
New Canadian data on income potential shows the value of a liberal arts degree to immediate and long-term income. After year one of employment, a humanities graduate will earn $32,800 growing by 74% to $57,000 in year eight. A social sciences graduate will earn $36,300 in year one growing by 71% in year eight to $61,900.
 
An MPHEC outcomes survey showed that five years after graduation, 95% of humanities and social science graduates are employed and achieving very high levels of satisfaction. And university graduates are not only going to work; they are likely to stay in New Brunswick. Another MPHEC survey determined that 80 per cent of New Brunswick graduates remained in the province two years after graduation.
 
That is the wonderful opportunity for the Class of ’20 starting their studies this week. 
 
For the next four years, our new students are going to interact with professors in small classes and get involved on campus. They will take courses in multiple fields (we offer more than 30 majors) and discover areas that interest them.
 
Even discovering new subjects by chance can change their lives. Many years ago, Thomas Isaac took one Native Studies class from Professor Graydon Nicholas and it changed his life. Inspired by that class, he has become one of Canada’s foremost experts on Aboriginal law, as a lawyer and published scholar.
 
The power of one class, one professor, and one student, and it will happen again this year, many times over. 
 
Dawn Russell is a graduate of St. Thomas University and its President and Vice-Chancellor.