Is investing in a university education a good idea?
“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” – Albert Einstein
Not so long ago, a university education was recognized as the best route to a well-paying job. The cost of earning that degree was justifiable because it opened doors to careers that were unavailable to people without a degree and it created the opportunity to make a lot more money during your working lifetime. Today, with students graduating with tens of thousands of dollars of debt (the average student owes $26,000 by graduation) and with many graduates struggling to find well-paid jobs in their field, it’s not surprising that a debate is raging over the value of education. For certain career paths such as teaching, medicine, law, and engineering, a university degree is the only way in and for a person who is sure of their career choice and who is driven to succeed in their chosen field, the rewards often justify the cost of their education. However, when far too many graduates find themselves with nothing to show for their degree, except for a large amount of debt that they are struggling to pay, maybe we need to change the way we view and approach further education.
Do you know what you want to do?
A 2007 study by Warren Clark found that 95% of parents with children under 19 believed that education after high school was ‘important’ or ‘very important’. Increasingly, parents assume that their children will continue their education after high school and I’ve noticed when talking to parents who have teenagers in Grade 12 that often the decision to go to university has less to do with their teen’s chosen career path and more to do with the parents’ fear that if they don’t stay in education they will be doomed to a lifetime of working for minimum wage. This might sound like an exaggeration but I hear these fears expressed on a regular basis by friends who are trying to convince their kids not to take a year off between finishing high school and going on to further education. Their big fear is that once the child leaves school and gets a taste of the real world, they will never go back. It doesn’t matter that their teens aren’t motivated to spend another three years in education or that they have no idea what they want to study, their parents would rather invest $8000 a year in keeping them in education to “save” them from the possibility they might end up working a job that isn’t suitable.
In an age where the transition from childhood to adulthood is much longer than it was 30 years ago, it seems unfair to expect a 17/18-year-old to make a decision about which career path they want to pursue when they have so little experience of the world and the opportunities that exist in it. Rather than shepherding them into the safety (and expense) of the university cocoon, wouldn’t it be better to help them find a job that would allow them to gain some workplace skills and earn some money that they could put towards a degree if and when they decide which path they want to take? It’s worth remembering that not every career path requires a degree and not every degree is acceptable for a chosen career. All too often, students choose a general degree path because they don’t know exactly what they want to do. By the time they’ve figured it out, they find themselves in a situation where they’re already thousands of dollars in debt and now they need to take additional courses or start over in order to get the qualifications they actually need.
What other opportunities are out there?
We put a lot of pressure on our young people to figure out what it is they want to do with their lives so that they can get out into the world and start doing it. The reality is that the world has changed a great deal over the past 20 years. Advances in technology and changes in the way our world operates mean that there is a multitude of career options available to young people now that simply didn’t exist when their parents were in High School. We live in a country with an abundance of graduates and a shortage of health professionals and engineers; a country that needs to attract talent from overseas in order to fill a variety of job vacancies that not enough Canadians are qualified to fill. Perhaps, instead of encouraging our young people to follow a path that was carved out decades ago, we should encourage them to look for the opportunities that exist in the world around them and to choose a career path that not only excites them but will reward them financially too. Pursuing further education can be an extremely expensive venture and it’s one too many young people are embarking on without enough thought for how they will pay for it or what they will do when it’s over.
As an individual with a passion for education, I strongly believe in the value of continuing education and the benefits that having an educated workforce brings to a country. However, I also believe that our continuing education system has become extremely profitable for the universities, colleges and financial institutions at the expense of the students who wander through the doors simply because they don’t know where else to go. Too many young people (and their parents) are paying the price for education and not seeing the rewards that they expected. Our children are our future; we should invest their time, talents and finances accordingly.