University is not for everyone

Why getting an undergraduate education is not always the best option

By Alec Wilson
Published: 3:02 am, 14 November 2013

JULIEN BALBONTIN/THE VARSITY

When my grandfather was 19 years old, he walked through the front doors of Stamford Collegiate High School in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and applied for a job. He was one of eight children, all boys, who were born and raised on a small Ontario farm during the Great Depression.

Barely out of high school himself, he was hired on the spot as a gym teacher and guidance counsellor. He would spend the rest of his adult working life at Stamford, coaching soccer and basketball. He raised two daughters, was able to purchase a new car every few years, and had a summer cottage up north to which he would eventually retire with my grandmother. My grandfather took a year-long accreditation course at McMaster University to become a guidance counsellor before going back to complete a BA once he found a paying job.

Both of his daughters went to university in Ontario, one of whom, my mother, went on to earn a doctorate degree at the University of Toronto. While her father, with no experience to speak of, was able to walk to the local high school and get a job, my mother’s working life has been complicated by changes in employers, locations, and lengthy commutes. My mother and father, in the prime of their working lives, only recently paid off the debt they incurred more than 25 years ago when they first entered university.

There are approximately 818,000 full-time undergraduates currently enrolled in classes at Canadian universities. Many of these students are contributing to the nation’s growing national student debt — which, according to the Canadian Federation of Students’ website, has long surpassed $15 billion and continues to grow. More and more students are enrolling in universities every year, university tuition rates continue to rise, and the debt keeps mounting.

The likelihood is that you will graduate from university in four or more years with some, if not significant, debt and no more employable than you would have been if you had spent those years doing something else.

In a piece on its website earlier this year, the CBC indicated that Ontario has the worst youth unemployment statistics in the country. “There is only one in two Ontarians between the ages 15 and 24 who have paid employment. What that is, is the worst numbers we’ve seen since Statscan has kept these numbers since 1976,” said Sean Geobey, a doctoral candidate in social and environmental finance at the University of Waterloo. Geobey’s research contributed to the findings covered in the article. While Canada has fortunately not experienced the same kind of economic lag that is still devastating other nations in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the country is still struggling to make up lost ground. In the city of Toronto alone, 18.1 per cent of youth are currently without paying jobs.

Amidst these discouraging statistics, the government of Ontario has been embattled with partisan platforms looking to make fundamental changes to the province’s post-secondary education system, in an attempt to better prepare the next generation’s workforce. Last year, for instance, the provincial Progressive Conservatives, led by Tim Hudak, released a white paper titled “Paths to Prosperity: Higher Learning for Better Jobs.” The controversial policy paper has been the source of much debate over the future of Ontario’s employment market since its release. The current Liberal government, under Premier Kathleen Wynne, has yet to respond with its own proposal.

There is virtue in proposing a fundamental shift in the way Canadian society thinks about post-secondary education. For decades now, a university degree has widely been considered a prerequisite to a fulfilling work life. A generation of young Canadians has been misinformed about the value of the university experience, and our economy is suffering as a result. Canadians need to stop and reconsider the purpose and reality of a university education. Unless you are enrolled in a practical discipline, like engineering or certain sciences, university is not about preparing for the working world — nor is it it about developing essential skills for employment.

The four-year-degree structure is ultimately about developing responsible, intelligent citizens. This is not to say that employers are not looking for intelligent, reasonable people — they certainly are, but it is not nearly enough. University is about developing critical thinking skills and gaining a specialized education. At the risk of sounding elitist, students dragging their feet through arts degrees, sleeping in lectures, and waiting on OSAP or other loan payments to make tuition are simply wasting their time if they think a job is waiting for them.

Year after year, a class of indebted young people is unloaded from the university system in Canada, smiling in their graduation pictures, diplomas in hand. The sad truth is that very few of these bright-eyed graduates will make a seamless transition into the working world, where their experience is relevant. A shift in society’s perception of the value of a university education must happen, and it must happen soon. A new emphasis should be placed on education in the trades and other practical skill sets. There are simply too many people in Canada today without jobs, and too many jobs without people.

The universities themselves are complicit in this crisis. As institutions admit more and more students and collect tuition fees, they devalue the degrees and certifications they grant. If the only criteria for receiving a degree are that you are able to pay and satisfy the lowest standard of achievement, then the degree is worthless. It is a simple question of supply and demand: the more BA students there are floating around the job market, the less valuable the degree becomes. Universities are doing a disservice to their students and to society as a whole if they continue to offer degrees to anyone who can pay.

Year after year, a class of indebted young people is unloaded from the university system in Canada, smiling in their graduation pictures, diplomas in hand. The sad truth is that very few of these bright-eyed graduates will make the seamless transition into the working world, where their experience is relevant. A shift in society’s perception of the value of a university education must happen, and it must happen soon. 

Universities cannot be advertised as a way station to fulfilling employment; they must be considered centres for higher learning, institutions dedicated to the development of well-rounded citizens, and that is all. The truth is, you do not need to be well-rounded to find a job in Canada right now — you need skills. You need to be able to make or fix things. There simply is not enough room in the job pool for a thousand art history majors.

Most of the change needs to take place in homes and high schools. Parents, teachers, and guidance counsellors need to reexamine the way that university is presented to students. University is expensive, it is hard, and it is not for everyone. Students need to have a sober and objective understanding of what they are getting into before they accept admission offers. It is a significant expense, either for the family or the individual, and it represents a significant opportunity cost: there will be substantial lost wages in return for your undergraduate efforts, and you will have lost time that could have been spent developing other skills or pursuing other experiences. The likelihood is that you will graduate from university in four or more years with some, if not significant, debt and no more employable than you would have been if you had spent those years doing something else.

What Ontario and Canada as a whole need now are fewer universities. We need to foster and develop institutions that provide young people with the skills they need to support themselves financially. I would personally much rather enjoy my life as a pipefitter, welder, or plumber — making a respectable wage with which I can support myself and a family — than I would working at a coffee shop, without an office wall upon which to display my degree.

  • Gianluca Canaletti

    Couldnt agree more. I think what’s been really damaging is the cultural/norm-building aspects of it, that is propagated more than anywhere in the family. I have personally seen way to many people suffer from the blind assumption made by their parents that “oh my son/daughter is a smart boy/girl therefore, through the sheer capacity of getting decent grades in school, he must by definition be cut out for university because that’s what smart, successful people do.”

    People have to better understand, or form for themselves, the connection between post-secondary education and preparation for joining the workforce, along with realizing that a successful career is perhaps best formed by considering both one’s natural capacities, preferences ALONG with the realities of the labor market. Academic success does not simply equal career success, and I think that’s the assumption that makes people fall prey to thinking that universities – the highest institutes of academia – could guarantee that.

  • E I

    I would not agree that we need “fewer universities”. I think what we need is a more competitive eduction system, with high schools setting higher standards thus eliminating the current grade inflation (hey, all the folks who got into UofT where the best in their class!), and universities being more selective during the undergraduate process, leading to greater drop rate or rather, to reorientation of those who do not do well enough toward a skill-based BA aka college, not just the other way around.

    Also, I think all humanities graduates should be encouraged, or even required, to learn French. The very knowledge of the second national language greatly improves employability, and who but humanities students should have the ability to succeed in learning a language? Generally speaking, there needs to be more skills-oriented things of that kind. The cocurricular record which UofT implemented looks like a good potential platform for that. However, advice on which skills to acquire, how to do so and how to transcribe them into a resume should be more explicit (maybe grant certificates, or even require that every student has a few real-world skills certificates as part of their BA, just like breadths).

    Students are left on their own and learn the truth the hard way (which is not a bad thing in itself). However, it appears that our generation is used to helicopter parents who themselves are not well informed. So if not the students, parents should be better informed about not just the poor state of our economy (about which the fear-mongering media are so eager to talk), but about ways how a student can acquire skills while being in humanities.

    I do not think that it serves anyone to tell “just go to college, get a profession”. Many people go to university for the romantic experience of philosophizing youth. Most probably think they are special, that the miracle will happen and that they will be the next Proust. And it might as well happen, we should not discourage people from trying. We just need to equip them with better tools to have more options upon graduation, foster hard work through competition, acknowledge that just writing papers is not going to be enough to succeed in life and implement a system which would allow students to acquire skills that will get them a job as part of their BA in, say, political science.

  • ZM

    I believe we should strive to have small classes and that arts classes should strive to active intellectually vigorous students and not just people who don’t fit in anywhere else.

    I also believe, however, that fear of high tuition and the indifference of employers to peoples intellectual merits are NOT reasons that people should avoid University. So long as we’re stuck in a paradigm where are people feel obliged to take a degree out of the fear that without one capitalism may hit them even harder, we can’t be having the conversation listed above. The first fights have to be for a universal, single-payer education system and for the right to employment. It is only after we have made serious progress along these emancipatory pathways that we should condescend to students working hard at universities to better themselves culturally and/or for the job market.

  • B.R

    Enormous tuition fees aren’t a fixed thing about university, neither
    are universities supposed to be vocational training. Many countries have
    free post-secondary schools, both developed such as most of Europe and
    countries less wealthier than Canada such as Mexico.

    Universities
    didn’t originate as vocational institutes were you are trained for your
    station in the economy, since probably the medieval ages it was based
    on knowledge for its own sake and one’s intellectual and personal
    cultivation.

    Enormous debts and vocational universities haven’t
    been the norm until recent years, you shouldn’t believe they are
    incontrovertible facts. Neither should you believe people don’t value
    “impractical knowledge” as much as you think they do. Learning about
    Darwin or reading 19th century literature doesn’t add practical and
    specialized knowledge, it can however provide personal fulfilment.

  • Anomie

    I subscribe to the belief that a highly educated society is desirable, so I
    also think that universities shouldn’t remain few and far between–that
    merely encourages elitism and eliminates social mobility (because more
    often than not, impoverished students will have a more difficult time
    competing for entrance than the privileged). Moreover, it means that
    students who desire to expand their ability to reason and critically
    analyze, rather than merely expand their accreditation, would have less
    of a chance to get that education.

    However, the dearth of jobs
    that require or allow a liberal arts degree is alarming, and mostly
    because it forces students into debt traps early in life. The solution
    shouldn’t be a diminished opportunity for individuals to attend
    university when it is possible to make education less costly for the
    individual, so that one may obtain a degree without suffering from high
    debt repayments–leaving them free to explore various avenues for income
    rather than accept and remain at the first job offer they receive.
    Getting a job is not the purpose of a university education–perhaps,
    yes, this should be made more explicit throughout childhood, but nobody
    should be discouraged from attending based on projected wages
    post-university.

    A standard, often-heard solution? Tax the rich
    and direct this funding towards intense subsidization of university
    education. Obviously there remain problems inherent to this answer, but
    it still seems fairer than having an entire generation flounder due to
    the double-whammy of academic inflation and high student debt–and
    fairer than your proposal to make university an experience that only the
    best of the best may have.