Higher Education Strategy Associates

Restore the NGS!

One of the best things that Statistics Canada ever did in the higher education field was the National Graduates’ Survey (NGS). OK, it wasn’t entirely Statscan – NGS has never been a core product funded from the Statscan budget but rather funded periodically by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) or HRDC or HRSDC or whatever earlier version of the department you care to name – but they were the ones doing the execution. After a trial run in the late 1970s (the results of which I outlined back here), Statscan tracked the results of the graduating cohorts of 1982, 1986, 1990, 1995, 2000 and 2005 two and five years after graduation (technically, only the 2-year was called NGS – the 5-year survey was called the Follow-up of Graduates or FOG but no one used the name because it was too goofy). It became the prime way Canada tracked transitions from post-secondary education to the labour market, and also issues related to student debt.

Now NGS was never a perfect instrument. Most of the income data could have been obtained much more simply through administrative records, the way Ross Finnie is currently doing at EPRI. We could get better data on student debt of provinces ever got their act together and actually released student data on a consistent and regular basis (I’m told there is some chance of this happening in the near future). It didn’t ask enough questions about activities in school, and so couldn’t examine the effects of differences in provision (except for, say, Field of Study) on later outcomes. But for all that it was still a decent survey, and more to the point one with a long history which allowed one to make solid comparisons over time.

Then, along comes budget cutting exercises during the Harper Government. ESDC decides it only has enough money for one survey, not two. Had Statscan or ESDC bothered to consult anyone about what to do in this situation, the answer would almost certainly have been: keep the 2-year survey and ditch the 5-year one. The 5-year survey was always beset with the twin problems of iffy response rates and being instantly out of date by the time it came out (“that was seven graduating classes ago!” people would say – “what about today’s graduates”?). But the 2-year? That was gold, with a decent time series going back (in some topic areas) back almost 30 years. Don’t touch that, we all would have said, FOR GOD’S SAKE DON’T TOUCH IT, LEAVE IT AS IT IS.

But of course, Statscan and ESDC didn’t consult and they didn’t leave it alone. Instead of sticking with a 2-years out survey, they decided to do a survey of students three years out, thereby making the results for labour market transitions totally incompatible with the previous six iterations of the survey. They spent millions to get a whole bunch of data which was hugely sub-optimal because they murdered a perfectly good time-series to get it.

I have never heard a satisfactory explanation as to why this happened. I think it’s either a) someone said: “hey, if we’re ditching a 2-year and a 5-year survey, why not compromise and make a single 3-year survey?” or b) Statscan drew a sample frame from institutions for the 2010 graduating class, ESDC held up the funding until it was too late to do a two-year sample and then when it eventually came through Statscan said, “well we already have a frame for 2010, so why not sample them three years out instead of doing the sensible thing and going back and getting a new frame for the 2011 cohort which would allow us to sample two years out”. To be clear, both of these possible reasons are ludicrous and utterly indefensible as a way to proceed with a valuable dataset, albeit in different ways. But this is Ottawa so anything is possible.

I have yet to hear anything about what, if anything, Statscan and ESDC plan to do about surveying the graduating cohort of 2015. If they were going to return to a two-year cycle, that would mean surveying would have to happen this spring; if they’re planning on sticking with three, the survey would happen in Spring 2018. But here’s my modest proposal: there is nothing more important about NGS than bringing back the 2-year survey frame. Nothing at all. Whatever it takes, do it two years out. If that means surveying the class of 2016 instead of 2015, do it. We’ll forget the Class of 2010 survey ever happened. Do not, under any circumstances, try to build a new standard based on a 3-year frame. We spent 30 years building a good time series at 24 months out from graduation. Better have a one-cycle gap in that time series than spend another 30 years building up an equally good time-series at 36 months from graduation.

Please, Statscan. Don’t mess this up.

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