Choosing the right type of education

By Gauntlet Editorial Board

As you put in the final effort to finish papers and write exams, you might experience the common feeling of not understanding why the hell you put up with school every semester. You’ll fondly look back on the days when you first began class, excited to learn something new without a worry for how long the university process would take. Things are bleaker now. Unfortunately, your new pessimistic outlook might be more fitting with reality.

It’s easy to see that getting a post-secondary education isn’t what it used to be. While we were promised by high school counsellors that university was the best investment we could make, both for ourselves and for the betterment of society, there is mounting evidence suggesting that’s not the case.

First consider students. Although in hindsight taking advice about career choices from a high school guidance counsellor was a suspect move, at the time they seemed to know what they were talking about. And, of course, there was a time when university was a gateway to a career, regardless of what one chose to study — our parents took advantage of this fact. The government provided more financial support to pay for school, and the purchasing power of a post-secondary education was much higher than it is now.

The problem of requiring more education for the same jobs is known as academic inflation. It goes like this: students see that those who are graduating this year aren’t getting jobs, so they decide to stick around for a double major, or contemplate going to graduate school. Over time, people get more educated, but there aren’t more jobs created that demand that type of education, so the supply of highly-educated people rises unnecessarily. Given the choice between a university graduate and someone with merely a high school diploma, employers will take the former. At no cost to themselves, employers encourage the practice, but perpetuate the feeling that more education is necessary.

Student debt is another serious issue. According to the Canadian Federation of Students, the average amount of student debt in Canada is now over $25,000. With lowered job prospects upon graduation, many debt-ridden students will struggle making payments for decades, thereby decreasing their total earning potential and career flexibility (employees with lots of debt are less likely to switch jobs because they risk going unemployed).

While universal access to student loans is generally good, increasing available funds also encourages universities to increase tuition costs. In America this trend is particularly pronounced: the consumer price index has increased 115 per cent since 1985, while college tuition and fees have increased 498 per cent. As universities collectively raise costs, the government increases access to student loans. It’s a simple formula that hurts students most.

Academic inflation and student debt are complex issues, but both can be addressed by looking at the pressures put on young people to attend university. Many mentors, from guidance counsellors to Barack Obama, continue to encourage high school students to get a university education. Instead, educators and the government should emphasize post-secondary education more generally. Being educated in a trade or receiving a diploma from a technical college often provides better job prospects than many university degrees, while also decreasing cost to the student because of the shorter study time.

Universities are both valuable and necessary. But they are no longer the best route for many young people. For some, attending university is good for its own sake — the case for a traditional liberal arts education is that it enhances the quality of one’s life rather than one’s earning potential upon graduation. Others argue that it makes better citizens. Not everyone, however, is cut out for this type of education. Further, not everyone wants it. We should stop pretending that it’s the best option for all.

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