Was my university education a waste?

32 Comments

I’m a highly educated individual. I hold both a Bachelor of Science and an MBA in Finance from two great schools in Canada. Tens of thousands of dollars of my education was paid for in scholarships, and I graduated with a GPA above 3.7 from both programs. I landed great jobs with each degree, that propelled me into an upper middle class lifestyle which makes me a poster child for the “go to college, get a job” success story.

But lot of my time and money in university was wasted.

I don’t say that lightly. I acknowledge that my quick and easy access to education is in itself a privilege, and that succeeding during and after my programs is, too. My student loan debts were manageable, my job titles and salaries after graduation are glamorous, and I kept going back for more. I don’t look like someone who should be criticizing post-secondary education, but I am.

I would even argue it’s precisely because I’ve been through the undergraduate and graduate school rounds that I am qualified to point out their inefficiencies.

You can play and win a game, but still think it’s rigged.

In the late 1800s, schools were designed and intended to teach obedience. During the rise of our industrial age, big corporations needed workers for their factories. The purpose of the academic system was to create obedient and compliant workers who never asked questions. There were already plenty of scholars at the time. – 10 Reasons Why C Students Are More Successful After Graduation

Why does anyone get a degree?

I got a degree because I was told I had to in order to get a good job. I was told by everyone I knew, I was told by commercials on TV, I was even told by my parents who didn’t have high school diplomas themselves.

Get a degree, get a job.

Many professions require a university education: teaching, nursing, medicine, dentistry, law, engineering. You can’t have these careers without it. Their curriculum is standardized, regulated, and frequently requires ongoing study even after graduation. For this reason, a university education is necessary to pursue these careers.

But what is the purpose of a degree that does not lead to a defined job?

I’ll tell you: a very expensive four-year IQ test.

Now, that’s a weird answer. Maybe you’ve never heard it before, but once you examine the idea closely you’ll see it makes a lot of sense:

Employers cannot discriminate based on IQ, but they can require you to have a degree, which is the same thing — it merely shifts the onus of determining intelligence from the employer to the post-secondary education system, which can discriminate applicants based on IQ.

This is why job postings will say “Bachelors degree required”. Universities can set minimum admission standards, and therefore impose restrictions on who they admit based on IQ — aka. high school grades and standardized test scores — so employers don’t have to.  A “good” college is considered more valuable in the corporate rate race because it communicates to everyone that you were “smart enough” to gain admission to that institution.

Because IQ still remains the best predictor of income and career achievement, you can’t really blame your employer for making these demands. Hard workers are enthusiastic hoop-jumpers, we’ll get as many degrees as you tell us to without thinking twice about how absurd the system is. It’s only after we emerge, bleary-eyed and confused in cap & gown, do we ask, “what was it all for?

Why is every degree stream the same?

You don’t need a BA in Sociology to become a project manager at an office, but they’ll demand you have one because they can’t screen your critical thinking, creativity, or problem skills any other way. As a result, students in university that not studying to pursue a defined career role (aka. me) are paying far too much money to pass an elaborate IQ test, in addition to not receiving the skills they need to succeed in their field.

It might be true that the university curriculum is the best way study engineering and not the best way to study literature, but few are asking those questions.

I don’t know why virtually every field has adopted the four-year degree system. It’s not the best method for career training in every field. Being an artist is not like being a nurse, just like being an archeologist is not like being botanist — yet virtually every post-secondary institutions treats these professions the same in terms of course credits, time, and fees.

It’s stupid.

It’s so agonizingly stupid it’s a wonder we even do it, but there is a reason.

Education is a shareholder asset, not a personal one.

The cost of a degree, adjusted to inflation, has nearly tripled over the past three decades. The reason why is a dark one: corporate and government profit. As universities became lucrative and often outwardly for-profit institutions, their focus on educating the next generation has all but disintegrated into maximizing annual revenues. They do this by maximizing prices.

One of the most important things to realize is that universities and colleges have been able to raise tuition and fees almost indiscriminately is because as student loan funding became increasingly available, there is virtually no risk of educational institutions pricing their customers students out of the market. 

In other words, the reason your education costs so much money is because debt is quick and easy. With lenders willing to give young people and their parents tens of thousands of dollars, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt in order to attend school, there really isn’t a ceiling to university education prices. The height of tuition and fees prices is merely representative of the risk tolerance of governments and banks.

In fact, the more you borrow, the better it is for every shareholder that has a finger in the pie: the school benefits from the tuition increases they implement, the government and private lenders benefit from the interest on the loans you must pay for the next few decades. The only person that loses is you.

Best of all, it’s not the university’s problem if you can’t find a job after graduation and pay back your student loans, because your payments or lack thereof are your lender’s problem, not theirs. Post-secondary educations literally cannot lose by raising prices.

Your education will not save you (and that’s a good thing)

The historical statistics about your chances of gainful employment and earning potential with a college degree are quietly being eroded with time, and soon they will no longer be true. Everything is changing, the future is already here.

If you don’t have to go to university, don’t go.

The best thing about my undergraduate education was my student loan debt, which led to this blog. The best thing about my graduation education was collecting credentials as a financial professional so I can become an entrepreneur. It’s taken a lot of time and money to get here. I can’t go back. I can only salvage what is most valuable and move forward more intelligently.

It’s ok to feel ripped off. We were.

The only thing any of us can do is maximize the return on our investment, be creative in the best way we know how, and share our talents with the world in a way that improves the lives of those around us. I have wielded my post-secondary education and its debts for good, and I will continue to do so.

The world doesn’t need obedient and compliant factory workers anymore. The world needs artists, creatives, hackers, and innovators. We’re done with apathetically living out our lives in school and at our 9-to-5 jobs. We’re sick of it. We’re done with it. –10 Reasons Why C Students Are More Successful After Graduation

We all waste time getting degrees to get jobs, thinking we’re trying to build a career.

You’re not trying to build a career, you’re trying to build a life.


32 Comments

  1. Education is even complicated in education. As a teacher in my particular state, the only way to get a salary increase is to get another advanced degree (no merit pay, etc.). While the education system would argue that I’m becoming a better teacher by learning, a lot of times it feels like I’m buying a raise. To “max” out my salary, I’ll need two more Master’s degrees. I already have one Masters that got me a specialist certification, plus I have two other certifications in Spanish and ESL on top of my undergraduate degree. Quite the system, no?

  2. Susan

    “The best thing about my graduation education was collecting credentials as a financial professional so I can become an entrepreneur.” I’m looking at completing my Master’s in the next few years for this reason. I want to be a consultant focusing on program development and assessment. But, if organizations want that, I need to give them a reason to pick me.

    I have a BA and work in a field that is like my undergrad’s fourth cousin. My undergrad got me a postgrad diploma program that allowed me to get a job. In hindsight, I really wish someone had told me that I could study a concentrated program in a shorter amount of time and come out on top.

    I remember the message about post-secondary in high school was simple: unless you didn’t have the minimum average (mediocre 70%) to get into MUN, that’s when you would look at alternatives. The trades and other diploma programs weren’t even a considered unless you couldn’t get into an institution that, essentially, takes everyone.

    Also, cheapest tuition in Canada (except Quebec but even their out of province rates can be high) , even for out of province students.

    • Bridget Casey (Author)

      I agree — we packaged university education as for the “intelligent” and painted trades for those who were somehow less, when it’s clearly more lucrative right off the bat to become a mechanic or a welder than a sociology grad.

      It will take a few decades for it all to play out but I think we’ll see there was more opportunity in the less costly shortcuts to the top, as you said.

  3. So, I have a Bachelor’s degree in music. It paid off briefly for a classical record label job I had. But after that, not so much. Luckily, I chose the cheapest of Massachusetts’ state schools. And that meant not being in debt for the rest of my life. Even with my career change, I’m not sure I’d do it differently. My music degree enriched my life in ways I never thought possible.

    • Bridget Casey (Author)

      I feel somewhat like that… I wouldn’t do it differently because my degree has led me to where I am, but I do think how much time/money was wasted is a travesty. I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned in university, and a lot of what I remember I never use!

  4. Have you read the book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable by Seth Godin? It’s very parallel to the quotes you featured, and I think you’d enjoy it! Ah yes, the get a degree go to college timeline…I’m in an interesting point where the jobs I have held post-grad just recently mandated the “Bachelors Degree Required” element. Most of my co-workers did not attend university and/or receive a degree. It sometimes gets viewed as a threat to come into an office overly educated with “skills” that the others haven’t learned (which most of what I learned in college can be self-taught, it just takes the self-motivation to do so). The other rough idea to swallow is having people before reaching their 20’s make decisions on what they would like to do for the rest of their lives, while suddenly graduating after 4 (5, or 6) years realizing it’s not what they would like to do…and then they’re in debt. Paralyzed. Refined to what their degree dictates, and wanting to follow their dreams instead but are incredibly unsure of how to get rid of the debt they accumulated. This is certainly a topic that I could converse over for hours! Degree trumps experience vs. experience trumping a degree. It can be re-hashed, argued, and displayed in an incredible amount of ways. In my experience (which is very limited compared to everyone who makes up the now combined $1.2 trillion student debt load)…I feel a lot of what you explained above.

    • Bridget Casey (Author)

      <3 <3 <3

      Awesome comments Alyssa, I agree with everything you said!!

      And I'm going to check out that book. I LOVE Seth Godin but I haven't read Linchpin!

  5. Gio

    I never really questioned going to university, it was just expected since I got good grades. I didn’t see any career options I wanted that I could do straight out of high school, so I just went. Of my friends who moved away for university, none of us finished in four years, and most of us changed programs or schools or cities, and all of us had a lot of debt at graduation. University is pushed on way too many people and many should have chosen different paths, but getting a degree was seen as the only thing for a smart student to do. I don’t regret my choices, my degree got me my current job, which is now paying for my next diploma, and my student debt is almost repaid, but I’m pretty lucky. There should definitely be more discussion in high school of what people actually picture their life as, and how much debt they are willing to take on to pursue their goals, and whether or not university will help them achieve their goals.

  6. KJ

    By far the best post yet. I get it. (And I work at a university.) I attended a community college first, and university second. I UNDERSTAND the value in broad experience brought on by a 4 year degree, such as taking non-core electives or living the study/stress/party/repeat lifestyle that only an undergrad knows. However, I definitely could NEVER UNDERSTAND the monumental cost and time I had to dedicate to learn about non-Business things like Greek history, Religious Studies etc., in order to attain a Business degree. I thought I was paying for skills training here people! Tuition costs hit me like a wrecking ball, and I learned I’m at one of the cheapest schools in Canada. Then I learned what our American counterparts are spending for the same thing! The macro question – are we too far gone to reform? …Make no wonder enrollment is down across the country, and we need more and more international students just to keep the system afloat.

    • Susan

      Another reason a number of schools take in a significant amount of international students is to boost their revenue. Universities make a lot more money off them than domestic. I worked at a bank and an international student came in and withdrew close to $10,000 in two transactions from his account after his parents deposited the money at home. I jokingly asked if he was getting himself a nice birthday present when he told me it was tuition. I just about fell to floor as my tuition, for the same university, has been about $1400.

      • Bridget Casey (Author)

        #truth

        When I worked for a university, international student tuition was 2x-4x what domestic students paid. Absolutely nuts (but excellent for the universities)

  7. Irene

    I would go so far as saying that an engineering degree isn’t all it’s worked out to be either. More and more companies are looking for technologists because they have more practical training. And in uni they stuff your brain with outdated garbage and useless “electives” to make us well rounded. I don’t need to be well rounded… I need real skills. Well rounded was for the 18th century when you needed to impress people with your piano and Latin skills in drawing rooms.
    I was stupid enough to get two engineering degrees (luckily with zero debt), but what a waste of time. And the problem starts in grade school, where anything other than post secondary education is for “not smart people”.
    Then you’re forced to make a very expensive and risky decision at the age of 18. How many people do you know that end up in a career that is 180 shift from their education. I’m all for on job training, push the cost to the employer.

    • I completely agree to this! I think they should expand the ‘trades’ field to include all of the occupations that are “hands-on” so we can create more scholarships and better learning environments.

      • Bridget Casey (Author)

        100% agree with this as well. I think we also have to get over the ridiculous tendency to “look down” on so many of the trades. We need to look down on people that spent $50,000 getting a degree that’s not paying off, not the people that spent $15,000 learning a trade in 2 years that now earns them $60,000 or $70,000+

  8. I did an undergraduate degree in economics, jumping through hoops to pass the thing, and struggled to get a job. My career has ended up being a result of my post-graduate COLLEGE certificate (in public relations). As I took my entry-level position making barely anything at 27, one of my colleagues was already at a senior level by 25 making 70k +. She had pursued a three-year college diploma straight out of high school and made more at 25 than many university graduates I knew at that age. I certainly wish someone had told me in high school that college is a viable option!

  9. Could you elaborate on your “for-profit” argument? Most Canadian Universities are publicly funded, so who are you referring to as making a profit?

    Yes, university is expensive, but tuition only accounts for <20% of university revenue. So again, where is this "for-profit" component? It doesn't seem like it's coming from students. If anything, I'd be surprised if they break even on student tuition.

    I do agree that standardized 4 year degrees are not necessarily the best option for all career paths. Of course, it is much more complicated than that.

    • Bridget Casey (Author)

      Roughly have of my website audience is American, I also did my first year of university in the US, so often I will write from that perspective.

      That said, while universities in Canada are not necessarily “for profit”, they are headed the direction of personal profit for the university staff. With university presidents in Canada making over $500,000 per year, plus staff receiving ludicrous salaries and benefits, the focus remains not in educating the next generation but in making the most money possible.

  10. I think this is a fascinating point of view (and not only because I share it).

    I believe that it would have been nearly impossible for you to deliver this point of view as a 17 or 18 year old kid deciding on college. By that I mean, even if you were a skilled debater, you would not have been able to come up with the arguments because you spent your life to date in an educational system.

    One personal goal that I have is to be sure that my kids can give this argument at 18, even if they do decide to go to college.

    • Bridget Casey (Author)

      I will pay for my children’s college only if they take 1-2 years off between high school and university first. I think too many rush into university just because they think it’s what they’re “supposed” to do, when really a year of genuine self-discovery is the best thing for them.

  11. I somewhat agree.

    I was not a C student by any stretch, and the ones who WERE C students were not successful out of my high school year before hitting college.

    It is romantic to generalize based on SINGLE stars like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg in each generation that they were dropouts or C students, etc and that just means I’m creative & free.. but that’s not really the case.

    What I have observed that has set any student apart, A, B or C or WHATEVER, is how hardworking & conscientious they are at whatever it is that they’re doing.

    I guess if C stands for “Conscientious”, I’d agree.

    In the same vein, A students like me, are not all successful either. Some have been floundering and going back to school to try and find themselves, but I’d say a greater majority of A students are more successful than the C ones.

    It’s a romantic, idealistic post, but not realistic in what is happening today. It is nice to say you want to be creative, find your passion, strike out, become an entrepreneur but you still have to get the bills paid.

    I say all of this… as someone who struck out on her own, found something she’s really good at and rather passionate about (by accident) and I more than manage to get the bills paid.

    I’m just being realistic about how I got here though.

    • Note: On the whole, A students TEND to be more conscientious which may be why they are on the whole, the majority that is successful to get into university, find the right jobs, leap onto other jobs, etc.

      Just a thought.

  12. Hooray for this post! This is exactly what I was thinking.

    I started off at ACAD for my bachelor of Design. This is a very demanding 4 year program however it requires at least 1 year of classes prior to create the portfolio simply to apply for the program… yet anyone with skills and a good computer can be a graphic designer. So I quit art school.

    I am now a Registered Dental Hygienist. Also a ridiculous program. I took 1 year of specific sciences and etc at MRU just to apply to the program. Once you are accepted the hygiene program is 2 years hands-on and classroom based learning. Now that I am working the first year of per-requisites at MRU did nothing to enhance my learning, it is simply to weed out those who are dedicated enough to apply, I suppose.

    Regardless, I agree that the education system needs an overhaul in all aspects. I hope one day when I have kids and they attend post secondary that it becomes very stream-lined and organized, and hopefully not financially crippling!

    • Bridget Casey (Author)

      Quitting art school was a great idea (and I say that 100% in support of the arts and supporting artists — just think the process of training them should be different!).

  13. Simon Drusko

    Now this is a blog I can personally confirm. I dropped out of uni twice. I don’t really like that term, especially because on both occasions it proved to be the best financial decisions of my life – by a long shot. The first time I was fresh out of school studying physics, living the poorest and most unpleasant of student lifestyles with no support, so an opportunity to work in the mining industry (I’m from Western Australia) and take advantage of the boom was too good to pass up. In a relatively short time hard work, a good attitude, networking and taking all the opportunities I could netted me a job as a planning engineer – all without a degree. I never liked mining though (long hours, big rosters, always working away). Instead the intention was always to become a pilot. So after I’d saved up what I thought was enough to study aviation full time without debt, I gave up my good mining income to begin what I thought would be the life I desired. It’s not all about money right?
    Anyway after 6 months in an aviation degree/flying college I realised just how much a net financial cost my flying desires were going to cost me. Further expenses plus loss of income and low pilot salaries for many years over the decade were easily adding up to over AUD$500,000. I almost fell into a hole realising what a bad decision I’d made, considering I didn’t want to go back to my old job and be a lifer in mining (a common term used is ‘golden handcuffs’).
    Well something good happened at this point. I went to a pilot information night at our Air Traffic Control facility in Melbourne, and was inspired to realised just how well ATC’s got paid and how interesting job actually is. Long story short I’m about to start my paid training as an ATC next month and after 2 years the salary becomes 6 figures while increasing well throughout my career – once again all without a degree. And the coolest part? While I’d had the time off work and money assigned to my flying lessons (#15: at least one big splurge you saved up for and paid in full with cash), I got my commercial helicopter licence and managed to pick up a side job as a scenic helicopter pilot in East Melbourne. The pay is next to nothing but it gets my fix and is much better than hiring one for $900/hr! I feel like I have the cake and am eating it too. Something I’d never be able to do if I stayed in my university courses.

    • Bridget Casey (Author)

      Nicely done!! Congrats on finding the path that was not only right for you, but excellent for your bank account. It’s not easy to be so self-aware in our youth (lord knows I wasn’t) but simply taking the time to think and work things out literally saves hundreds of thousands of dollars, as you’ve pointed out, and years of wasted time. Congrats again on all your success, you definitely did things right!

  14. Really great post Bridget.

    I think it’s increasingly true in our ever more freelancer economy that it’s less about the degree, and more about the skills that you collect.

    The people that are doing really interesting things these days have managed to take their skill set and apply it in a unique way. There’s less and less… get job that leads to degree (like you said), and more … what skills do you have, and what do you want to do with them.

    I trained as an artist and couldn’t agree more with the what you alluded to in a reply to another commenter that… perhaps a university based training is not ideal for the arts.

    Anyway, loved the piece! Thanks.

  15. Post secondary education is still the best ROI for your future earnings, but there are definitely a lot of people who waste that potential or at least handicap themselves by aimlessly jumping into a program without researching the employment potential once they’re finished.

    I have a cousin who has a masters in social work and they refuse to relocate from an area with one of the highest unemployment rates in Canada, so what good is all of that education and debt if they don’t find a job in their field? Pretty much a waste of 6-7 years

  16. Gael

    I am a current student in a Bachelor of Commerce program, and I cannot stress enough how spot on this article is. I’m a firm believer of doing things your own way, and finding new ways to achieve things out of life. This is a fine piece of critical thinking that I will share and discuss more with my friends.

  17. Alyssa

    This article ain’t nothing but the cold hard truth! Real talk and positivity!

    Thanks as always.

  18. Amazing post! Took the words right out of my mouth.

  19. Awdahir

    This is by far, the most honest and intellectual critical argument against the status quo of “our” higher education institutions.
    Yes, go yo University if you have the money, but once taking a student loan is the only option you have, I will strongly and honestly advice you to be really really really careful about your choice of program.
    I graduated in 2014 with a BSc in Economics with a relatively high GPA. Getting a job with my degree was an absolute hassle, and 8 months after my graduation and reasonable job on my way! I joined the construction trades, and started working as a carpenter/Scaffolder in Northern Alberta, for two years now. Yes, thus wasn’t my dream job, however, it paid off my unfortunate 30k student loan.
    What hounts me to date, is how easily i signed the student loan papers, not knowing the opportunity cost of the time and money I am about to gamble with!!