How I realized university wasn’t my be-all and end-all
I should have seen the warning signs.
Take one snow-stormy night in mid-December, back in my first semester of university. It was nearing midnight, and despite a looming first-year politics exam mere hours away, I left my notes and textbooks and sped to Parliament Hill, where I donned my polyester page uniform and (voluntarily) worked a thrilling, late-night emergency debate.
I rationalized my decision easily. Why worry about a political science exam when I could take a front-row seat to watch our elected representatives engage in high-stakes debate?
In the years following, I quickly became the reigning Queen of Justification. I justified every skipped class and dropped course that speckled my short-lived university career. Why study CRTC regulations in a communications class when I can learn about the importance of airing Canadian content on my own campus radio show? Why fret over an English grammar exam when I can spend (triple) that time copy editing articles for publication?
When I realized I was learning more on the job — on any of my jobs— and was essentially getting paid to discover career prospects and to develop crucial workplace skills, I decided it was time to put the brakes on my expensive academic career. I’ve since replaced selecting courses with selecting what to include on my resume. I haven’t looked back.
But though I know the value of my choices, there remains a stigma against me and my kind — those who choose not to go to university outright or who decided to leave and never return. We’re told we’re unemployable. We’re told we haven’t worked hard enough. We’re told we can’t be taken seriously.
How many 18- or 19-year-old students take their post-secondary studies seriously? My introductory philosophy class was populated by half-awake students slouched behind their laptop screens. No more than eight of us — of nearly 100 — had completed the required readings for each class. Eyes glazed over. People snuck into class late and out early. It may have been a first-year thing or a mandatory-arts-course-thing, but many, clearly, wanted to be elsewhere.
So why, then, are those of us who have the courage to seek knowledge and growth elsewhere so frequently cast aside? I’ve been told by people from various fields of work that if they had two qualified candidates apply for a job, and only one of them had a degree — a degree in anything — they would hire the applicant with the piece of paper. And I’ve heard two justifications for this: the degree demonstrates a strong sense of commitment, or it acts as a de-facto insurance policy.
I don’t believe a degree properly fulfills either of these requirements.
Consider the commitment argument first. There’s a rather simple connection to be made between sticking around an institution for four years and sticking around a workplace for the same amount of time or longer — but that’s as far as that argument goes. Undergraduate schooling does not revolve around a nine-to-five schedule. It does not require that you dress professionally, or even that you complete the same tasks every day. University structure doesn’t even ask that you stick with the same topic of study, if the amount of students who change majors partway through is any indication. If you’re looking for someone who will be committed to your workplace, look for someone who has proven their commitment to another job previously.
The second reason, the purported “insurance” that a degree holder provides, is the pro-university argument I’ve heard most often from school-supporting employers. Apparently, if I was an employer and hired a non-graduate for a job, and he or she screwed up royally, my butt would be on the line – more so than if I had hired a graduate to do the job. How does an extra credential become an excuse? If you mess up, you mess up; and while it’s up to your superiors to figure out how to proceed, you’re likely to get some sort of slap on the wrist. Consequences shouldn’t vary between the schooled and the school-less. Apart from medicine, engineering, and other schooling-is-always-mandatory-because-people’s-lives-are-at-stake fields, I can’t name other jobs for which university training provides the one-and-only kind of preparation or insurance against failure.
I’m starting to think I wouldn’t work for an employer who simply scans my resume to look for a degree. I’d rather someone give me a job because they believe my combined experiences – inside and outside of the workplace – make me a good fit. And while I respect my peers who have found personal value in pursuing higher education, I’m still waiting for our society to grant equal value to education that is sought elsewhere, outside of the four walls of a lecture hall.
Will that ever happen? Will more employers find the time to look beyond the fact that we, the degree-less, have been replacing 20 hours of class a week with 40 hours of work for the last several years of our lives? It can be terrifying to be on this side of the fence when jobs are scarce, competition nears bloodthirsty, and more and more young people are waiting out the recession by completing post-grad programs. But just like the swing of a supply and demand economy, perhaps work experience will increase in value once we realize just how common a BA, and even a master’s, is becoming.
Consider this: decades ago, higher education was largely inaccessible and unnecessary for most. Workers of all collar colours climbed their respective ladders as they dedicated years of service to their trades, and they gained necessary skills as they took on new responsibilities. When did we lose this value we once so emphatically placed on hard work?
I no longer believe a degree is synonymous with education — at least when it comes to job-preparedness. For the working degree-less, those who are looking to pay the bills and find fulfillment beyond a campus: it’s time for employers to realize we have something more to offer than a $30,000 piece of paper. We have tangible experience — an invaluable asset in this post-recession working world.