The University Promise – Reality Check

My daughter recently began her school career in Junior Kindergarten and since her school is JK-12, I received a newsletter outlining why I should send her to University. It made me laugh, but it also made me think about how many young people I have interviewed for jobs who are university graduates, but are struggling to find their way in the working world.

The most controversial claim in the newsletter was, “A university degree is a good return on investment”. Well, I thought, maybe, if you can find a job. I believe the jury is still out on this claim.

There seems to be a conundrum these days that recent graduates are stuck in. They need to gain experience, but they need to pay off student debt. I have known graduates who are unwilling to take low paying jobs because they have debt to pay off, even if that job would give them valuable skills, training and build networks toward their career goals. Unfortunately, holding out for something that pays more can often be disappointing.

As job opportunities dwindle, recent graduates are competing for internships and entry level positions against those with more degrees and more experience. The choice for the employer is obvious, but may leave recent grads jobless and bitter. How are they supposed to gain experience if no one is willing to give them a chance?

What is a Bachelor’s Degree worth?

There has been a recent trend of increased university enrollment, increased tuition fees, but also increases in class size and decreases in meaningful contact time with professors. I can’t help but think that universities are becoming more interested in profit rather than education. Are they promising a career because they know it will attract you to pay bank breaking tuition fees? I hope the answer is no, but it does make me wonder.

Either way, I do think Universities are making promises of jobs and successful careers that they may not be able to fulfill, at least not for everyone that graduates. With Universities in North American and around the world churning out more people with Bachelors degrees than ever before, what makes a graduate stand out? The more people that graduate from university, the more level the playing field becomes and the harder it is to compete for precious fewer jobs. In a strange way, the more people who graduate the less value a Bachelor’s degree has.

I think given the nature of today’s global job market, the promise of a career from a university degree is misplaced. The way a university degree is structured is meant to be a foundation for learning, an education in critical thinking, but not a ticket to a career. It is important that those entering university understand this difference. If the promise of a high paying job in your field is removed, does the return on investment still seem as attractive?

Young people will need to do more than just attend university to gain the experience they need to stand out. Work every summer, learn to play an instrument, volunteer their time, join clubs and committees, train in public speaking, and much more, all before they graduate and start looking for a job in their field.

Unfortunately, after all that, they will also need to start at the bottom, do unpaid or low paid internships, accept entry level positions, do further training, go to conferences, travel or even move across the country (or to another country) for work, network and maybe even become an entrepreneur. Are generation Y and Z being told this?

I remember graduating with top marks with a Bachelor of Science and thinking, “Ok, now I will get a job in my field.” Well, even though I had worked every summer and even built excellent experience in my field through a co-op program, I still had trouble even landing interviews for jobs I believed I was more than qualified for. After following up with one potential employer, I had my answer. They had received over 100 applications for one opening.

After several frustrating months looking for work in the city I live in, I realized I would have to broaden my search. Working part time at a restaurant to pay my bills, I continued the search, with slightly lower expectations. After many very interesting, short term, low-paying, contracts in locations all over North America, more training and a master’s degree, employers finally started to pay attention.

The point I am trying to make here is, finding fulfilling employment in the field you are interested in is not easy these days, and maybe it never has been. I want to warn young people before their expectations are crushed. You will need to do more than just go to University. So start young and build a diverse base of experience. Be bold and don’t stop searching for interesting opportunities. I did pay off my student loan, eventually. So don’t give up hope, but be creative and consistent.

To go, or not to go?

Attend University, if you think it is something that you are interested in, but remember, you only get as much out of life as you put into it. University should not be something you do because you are told that it is the next logical step in life. Really stop and think, because University is hard work and if you don’t put in the work, you won’t get much out of it, expect for a piece of paper that is arguably loosing its value as a tool toward employment.

As for my own daughter, we are still working on Junior Kindergarten!