Do you need a degree? The question isn’t whether somebody else needs a degree, but whether you do. It’s your time, your life. Let’s evaluate the opportunities in a practical way. Here are ten issues to consider carefully:
1. How precisely will a degree help you fulfil your goals in life? Is a degree required for your career goal? For careers like medicine or law, degrees are gatekeepers. For others, like running a small business or wise investing, degrees add a certain cachet, but the useful information could be acquired at industry seminars, night courses and of course through self-study using free information on the Internet. For some careers, your time might be better spent practicing and learning through experience then getting a degree.
2. Society puts a lot of weight on degrees, and degree holders earn more . True enough, but it doesn’t follow that you will earn more unless you choose carefully. Many degree holders have a hard time finding work (usually because they majored in a field for which there was not much demand). Many small business owners have succeeded financially without a degree. Of course, many haven’t. The key is to know what you want, know the specific career you are targeting, know your abilities and to do exactly what’s best for your particular situation.
3. A degree fulfils family expectations. But, hmmm. On the one hand, you hardly want to go through life as The Quiet Disappointment to your degree-conscious parents. On the other hand, what if your life’s ambition is paramedics, you already volunteer at hospitals, and have passionately watched every single episode you could find of paramedic TV dramas, dreaming that one day you could be in their shoes? Would you rather be a disappointment to yourself? One must choose.
4. You will make friends and contacts among your school’s alumni and profs. They can provide leverage later on, for sure. But in today’s world of specialization, it often comes down to what you can do, not necessarily who you know.
5. You aren’t sure yet what you want to do in life, so a general B.A. or B. Sc. might come in handy. It might. Unless, of course, you took the B.A. and then realized that you actually needed the B. Sc. If you are truly uncertain, why not take a year off to work, think, and explore vocation options and requirements patiently and thoroughly?
6. Did you receive a good enough education for your current aspirations? Many public school systems in America are substandard by international measures and, some fear, unreformable due to political gridlock. Don’t be fooled by local test scores. When twenty poorly performing school districts are ranked, dogs get transformed into stars by the sheer magic of ranking. If possible, write objective international tests before you decide.
7. Will you receive a good enough education at university? University is much changed from what your folks may remember. Cheating scandals abound among professors as well as students, and frivolous courses tie up many faculties. Shakespeare may not be featured on the English course, crowded out by politically virtuous non-entities. Dropout rates are high. You can avoid all this by choosing the right institution and faculty, but that takes time and research. In these frenetic times, elders’ fond alumni memories are heard and treasured, but not a basis for decision-making.
8. How will you afford it? If your parents are not affluent, you may face the following dilemma: You can work on the side, but then you have less time and energy for study. Yet you must aim for an A; graduating with a C average is just what you don’t need. You can borrow money, but then you must make sure that your degree leads to a job. It all requires strategy.
9. Are you eligible for any scholarships, bursaries, a discount on fees, or a co-op program? Tuition is rising, and all avenues should be explored. Perhaps mom belongs to a public service union that provides a one-time gift to children of members seeking higher education. Perhaps children of alumni get a break. Never hurts to investigate.
10. “I just want to learn the Great Ideas. It’s fine with me to operate a crane for a living, as long as I have books.” Well, contact with great ideas is the single best motivation for attending university. But caution: You must choose an institution where great ideas are respected.
You will develop other questions, of course. No matter what, a degree done right is a lot of commitment, and years you won’t get back. A little time now thinking it through is negligible by comparison.