Did I Even Need University?

Need? No.

Do other people? Sure.

Doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc. They do, absolutely. If you could just say “yeah, I’m a doctor.” without ever actually learning how to be a doctor, our hospitals would be overrun with the kind of docs and nurses right out of Idiocracy. A terrifying thought.

“Dude. You look sweaty. You should stop sweating maybe.”


But did I need post-secondary education?

Well, I thought I did. Everyone my age seemed to believe whole-heartedly that college or university was the obvious next step after high school. What else were we supposed to do? There were no opportunities to be found in our small rural community. S0 we left.

I studied biochemistry originally. Why? No idea. I thought it was interesting, learning about all the tiny chemical reactions going on inside us all, keeping us alive.

I didn’t become a biochemist.

But I was able to use that background when I did my MSc in Human Nutrition and later, my RD credentialing. I was exempt from the biochemistry classes. Yay!

Did I need that MSc? No.

Did I need that 8-month unpaid internship (which had a price tag of $8000)? Well, if I had ever managed to find work as a registered dietitian, then yes, it would have been wildly useful. But I didn’t, so it wasn’t.

(And now I pay roughly $1000/year in dues to stay licensed and informed as a non-practicing Dietitian).

The steady jobs I had following my third and last convocation in summer 2013, were in retail, foodservice and food safety.

I stuck with the latter. What did I need to get that job?

  1. A $300 advanced food safety course, that I already had from my food lab courses at McGill, but which anyone can take (even online, if they don’t have a nearby course trainer or proctor).
  2. No physical limitations which might prevent me from looking under things, crawling through things, or climbing ladders.

Was my education an asset to getting this job? Sure. I could explain the science behind things. But it wasn’t essential that I be a biochemist, or a dietitian.

I just needed to be observant, friendly, fair and curious.

Over the past few years, since leaving school (and not once looking back, or considering more of it), I’ve decided that far too many of us seek higher education, thinking that it’s necessary or that it guarantees us secure and steady work. We leave school, full of hope, knowledge and … debt. And what do we see on every job posting?

“Experience an asset.”

Yet very few people have caught on that experience is often valued more highly in a workplace than post-secondary education.

Let’s look at 2 scenarios.

1. You go to school for 6 years. Maybe a bachelor’s degree followed by a master’s degree (maybe because you’re not ready for the real world yet, or because you realize that everyone has a Bachelor’s degree, so you have to do even more to increase your value).

Cost-per-year: Let’s say $8,000 for tuition, books, and school-related activities.

2. You get a job at a fast-food chain right out of high school, making minimum wage (which is now $10.75 or so?)

Let’s assume rent, food, clothing, etc. is all the same.

After 6 years, the person who went to school is at least $48,000 in debt. Probably more though, since loans also tend to cover rent, etc, but let’s say summer jobs covered that.

The person who started out flipping burgers, was probably promoted to full-time shift supervisor after the first year, which came with a raise to $12/hr and benefits. After another year, they were given another raise, maybe $12.50/hr. After 3 years, they became the assistant manager, with a pay bump to $15/hr, and after 5 years, they had become the manager, with a salary of maybe $30-40K/year, and likely a pension plan tacked onto those benefits. At the 6-year mark, they may still be the manager, they may have been promoted to district manager, or maybe they got sick of the fast-food business, and decided they’d like to try managing a different kind of restaurant. They have no debt whatsoever. We’ll say they stayed a pedestrian or bus-rider for 6 years, so they don’t even have car payments.

They both walk into an interview after those 6 years.

The person with two degrees, who strongly believes they’d be great at managing others (but with no experience doing so), is turned down, while the person who has proven their capability of managing others, gets the job.

Perhaps they give the fresh graduate a position as a server (minimum wage + tips), and see how they do.

It will take that grad another 6 years or so to get to where the burger-flipper is.

While the new server is trying to pay $50K of debt down while making $20K/year, the manager makes $50K a year and has no debt. So maybe they travel instead! Maybe they buy a house, perhaps they even rent out the basement, and use the rent for their mortgage payments.

Who’s smarter?

Who’s more educated?

Is it the same answer for both?

I read a CBC news article this morning, about this wave of unemployed and underemployed 20- and 30-somethings, which is absolutely the result of this push for higher education. Until this past January, that article could have been about me! I was working 2-3 jobs at any given time, usually around 60 hours a week, with nothing to show for it. No savings to speak of, just chipping away very slowly at my little mountain of debt.

I had no idea this way of life was called the “millennial side hustle.” But it makes sense. That’s certainly how it felt!

We need to stop marketing post-secondary education as the “obvious next step” after high school. We need to bring back promoting the trades (fewer years of school, for less money, and the eventual wages are much higher), bring back apprenticeships for careers that really don’t need years and years of pricey book-learnin’, and we need to promote  and push for young adults to actually get the work experience that so many employers demand.

University and college will be there, when you figure out that/if you really do need it. But until then, more people should be putting money in their pockets to save for it, rather than coughing up money they don’t have, assuming they need it without knowing what  they need it for.

Some companies will even reimburse you for studying, if it’s relevant to your work! They believe it will make you a better, more knowledgeable, more innovative, more valuable worker. And if your employer considers you valuable, you’re a lot more secure in your job than if they think you’re dispensable.

Theoretically, then, you could have a full-time day job and take online or evening courses for free, which only increases your value as an employee. All without digging a ginormous hole of debt.

Doesn’t that sound so much better?

Do I wish I’d never gone to university?

Yes and no.

I did learn a lot, it was sometimes fun, and it’s where I met some very close friends. But it was also incredibly stressful, very expensive, and not really necessary. I do wish I’d waited a few years, or taken a gap year or two, to see what I would wind up interested in, so I could make sure it was worth the time and the money.

But I didn’t wait. And I’ll be paying for it for a while longer. That is bothersome, but I think what bothers me most is the lost time.

I can’t buy those 8 years back, and I can’t get a refund for them either.

Perhaps I’ll just try to retire 8 years earlier than the average millennial, instead. 🙂


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