Friday, 6 September 2013

I want my kids to go to university

I've heard a lot of surprising "expert advice" lately advising against a university education - because of the associated cost and debt incurred, because of the specialization required to have an increased income potential, and because of the many alternative educational opportunities available. Despite the alternatives and their potential, I fervently hope my boys decide to go to university - but possibly not for the obvious reasons.

There has been a significant shift toward university education in Canada over the last several decades, for fairly transparent reasons: employability and earning potential. The number of full-time university students has more than doubled since 1980 and jobs for people with only a high school diploma are disappearing. The number of jobs given to university graduates more than doubled from 1.9 million in 1990 to 4.4 million in 2010, while the number of jobs given to high school graduates dropped by 1.2 million. A graduate with a university degree is significantly more likely to find employment than one without. The income advantages of a university education are enormous as well, and the gap is increasing as time goes on; in 1980 a university graduate earned 37% more than a high school graduate, while by 2010 the advantage was over 50% (as much as 66% for women). By contrast, a college or trade school graduate earns only 15% more than a high school graduate.

So if my kids go to university rather than college they are both more likely to find a job, and more likely to make a better income in that job. Like any parent, I want the best for my children, so it only makes sense that I'd prefer they make a choice that stands a greater chance of landing them gainful employment and the comforts in life that an increased income can provide.

But that's not the only reason I want my kids to go to university.

A university degree by no means guarantees a job upon graduation. A general Bachelor's degree in arts or humanities provides no specialized knowledge that will prepare a graduate to enter the workplace, while a college diploma or trade school certificate or an apprenticeship provides a student with specific, career-directed education that will prepare them for the specific field which they wish to enter. I realize that. And the amount of student debt accrued earning a university education without Mommy & Daddy's assistance is astronomical, and can't be justified by future earnings unless the student is enrolled in a professional program. According to a report in Financial Post last month, the average university student in Canada these days graduates with $28,000 in debt, which takes an average of fourteen years to pay off assuming a starting salary of about $40,000. It's hard to justify saddling a kid with that kind of debt, which is why many financial experts ask students to weigh the debt load they're taking on against future earnings before deciding what program they pursue.

I can't argue with any of these points. But I still think it's important my kids go to university.

I did a four-year Bachelor of Arts. I graduated with a Combined Honours degree in History and Political Science with a minor in English.
I now work in fitness.
I changed majors roughly a zillion times over my four years of university. Because my courses were all essay courses (evaluated solely on essays & a final exam) I spent about 99% of my time partying, playing varsity sports, and sleeping - and attended maybe one class a week - but still graduated with an A average because I write a mean essay. This isn't a skill I learned in university, though I'm sure I refined it there - it's a skill I had since high school.
My parents paid for that "education."

Obviously, my "formal education" did not have a direct career path. I didn't leave university with any job skills or any clearer a notion of what I was going to be when I grew up than when I started. Luckily - thanks to my parents - I didn't have any student debt, either.

But those things I did learn in those four years are what helped to make me the person I am today. I firmly believe that without those four years of university, of abstract learning and reading and courses with no little or no practical application in the workforce, of delving into philosophical ideas and literary masterpieces and political history and ideology unrelated to a potential job, of submitting work to be criticized and evaluated, of auditioning my writing against a field of hundreds of my peers to be selected for an elite writing tutorial for only a dozen students, I would never have gained the confidence or broad-based knowledge to be able to start my own business, to go out and sell the concept to complete strangers, to return to school years after graduating for continuing education courses to  increase my qualifications. If I had gone to a community college for a specialized program, I may have landed a job in that field and continued in the same career to this day and until retirement rather than drifting from job to job for several years as I did after university. But I don't believe that I would have been as happy in that career as I am now.

I don't believe that an eighteen-year-old can or should be expected to know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives. There is much to be said for all the post-secondary educational opportunities available. But in my opinion, those four undergraduate years of university provide students with the opportunity to learn, to explore, to grow up emotionally and intellectually. And they provide invaluable, intangible benefits that carry on throughout their adult lives.

I want my children to do and be whatever they want and have always taught them that they can (at the moment, my oldest wants to be a professional soccer player and a chef; his brother plans to be a Jedi.)  We are saving enough that we will be able to pay for their education for them, whatever direction that education ends up taking (is Jedi training expensive?) But in my own mind, I really and truly hope they decide to go to university as the first stepping stone on that path.

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