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Is getting a university degree the right option for everyone?

By Jaishree Drepaul


There really is no one-size-fits-all answer about what to do after high school, although
chances are you may feel that university is the natural next step. But many students,
parents and even university professors are debating just how much bang for the buck a
degree offers today.

One expert who has been very outspoken on this issue is Ken Coates, former Dean of
the Faculty of Arts at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. He is also the co-author of
Campus Confidential: 100 startling things you don’t know about Canadian universities,
published last year. The book reveals that many people don’t realize just how many
students struggle at university and flunk out.

“We allow and encourage a very large number of students to go to university in Canada. We have one of the most open and accessible systems anywhere in the world,” Coates said in a CBC radio interview late last
year. “But it carries a cost. There are many benefits to universities, but not all students belong in universities.”

Universities have long been seen as prestigious places to grow and learn, but it seems that
in today’s society, more and more students are not primarily interested in expanding their
minds. Rather, they’re expecting to get job skills and believe a degree guarantees a better
chance of employment and high salary. Unfortunately, “there is a mismatch between
parental, student, and employer expectations, government expectations and what the
universities are able to deliver,” says Coates. “Students come in expecting a fairly easy
path through university. They expect to move quickly into the job market. Employers
expect students to have the right set of skills for the jobs they have on offer, and on a
whole bunch of levels these are ships passing in the night.”

Indeed, you may already know of someone who left for university and found their
expectations shattered. They may have been unprepared for grades lower than what
they achieved in high school or the increased personal responsibility for assignments
and class attendance. And it’s not uncommon for students to experience shock simply
at the amount of academic commitment needed in university. For instance, according
to Coates, “at university, in a faculty of arts, we assume that students will work for two
hours outside the class for every hour in class.”

That means that if a student has a three-hour class per week, they are expected to invest
an additional six hours outside the classroom. So a 15-hour-a-week courseload really
turns out to be 45 hours of work. Not everyone is willing to take this on – and some who
are willing may find themselves lacking the skills to actually finish a degree, and they
drop out partway, having wasted a number of years. Some students invest thousands
of dollars to get a degree, often resulting in substantial debt that takes many years to
pay off. They may still be left questioning what they’ve achieved – especially if they’re
unable to find a job in the field for which they’ve trained. This scenario is played out
more often then you’d think. “An awful lot of students come to university because they
think this is the way to the middle class. They think there is a career and job there,” says
Coates. “There is always a wonderful education for students who want to learn and who
are open and willing to put in the effort, but whether or not the job market can absorb as
many people as we are putting through is another question.”

Clearly, there are many jobs out there that don’t require a degree – and there really are no
guarantees on just how much mileage you’ll be able to get from a university education
these days. It doesn’t hurt to talk a bit more with your guidance counselors about ways
to determine what’s right for you. Knowing your best options will allow you a greater
chance not only for post-secondary success, but perhaps also personal happiness.

Sidebar 1 Other Options

So let’s say that you feel that university is not for you. What then? The most obvious
choice is college; an avenue that some experts believe has really been undersold. If
you’re looking to get specialized skills and spend a shorter time in post-sec, consider
this route. Sharon Carry, president and CEO of Bow Valley College in Calgary has
said, “there’s a growing understanding that if you want to be work-ready you choose a
college or a institute or a polytechnic, because that’s what they’re all about.” Carry, who
is also an executive board member of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges,
adds that strong industry connections, high placement rates, affordability and a more
hands-on approach are other strong selling points. It’s also good to note that a number of
colleges across the country have collaborative or joint degree programs with universities.

You could also explore the possibility doing an apprenticeship. Committing to an
apprenticeship training program means entering into an agreement with an employer and
a government apprenticeship office. If you successfully complete approximately 2 to 5
years of on-the-job training followed by a government-administered exam, you can then
work as a tradesperson in your province. In a nutshell, you “earn while you learn.” Check
out for more information.

Sidebar 2 Navigating Parental Pressure

Since you were first born, your folks have been dreaming about what you’d be when
you grew up. And in your senior high-school year, you’ve probably entertained your
own career dreams. But what if your folks want you to be a doctor and you’d rather be a
dancer? What if you want to go to college but your parents want you to go to university?
First off, you’ll get further if you’re respectful and at least listen to what they have to say.

If you are at odds, try to remain calm and find a quiet time to reopen a discussion about
your feelings and desires. Attend school tours and information sessions with your folks,
where they can get a feel for what the schools you’re interested in have to offer, and hear
success stories. Consider having a sit-down with another adult third party, like a guidance
counselor or sympathetic relative, present. Make sure you’re ready to present facts and
show your parents that you’ve really given serious thought to your future goals. Finally,
remember that you and your parents both want what is best for you; maybe compromise
and apply to a variety of schools so that your options are not restricted should you come
to see your parents’ point of view, or they yours.

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