Beyond the Rhetoric


Why My University Degree Wasn’t a Waste of Time and Money

July 12th, 2012 by
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UBC Koerner Library

There are ongoing debates about the value of a college education. Many people say that the piece of paper you get at the end of your four or five years isn’t worth much anymore, because nearly everyone has one. All you get is the burden of student loan debt, coupled with a crowded job market where that piece of paper really promises you nothing.

While there is some truth to that argument, to an extent I feel that a university education still holds its merits. I come from the perspective that while a bachelor’s degree doesn’t guarantee you any kind of career–you need other attributes and “selling points” to land a job too–the college experience holds intrinsic value. You can go to a trade school and learn something practical, like how to be a plumber of dental assistant, but a more academic post-secondary education is quite different.

For me, it wasn’t really about the specific facts that I learned in psychology class as much as it was about developing my soft skills and, as cliche as it may sound, building character. Allow me to explain.

Organizing My Thoughts

I wrote a lot of essays over the course of my university career. This meant not only did I have to do a lot of research, but it also meant that I had to practice my critical thinking and analytic skills. I also had to organize my thoughts in a meaningful and logical way.

Whether I was writing a paper on English literature or discussing the connection between borderline personality disorder and compulsive gambling, all of those jumbled thoughts had to be put together into a cohesive argument. Today, as I make my living as a freelance writer, this skill set is utilized extensively.

Developing Creative Problem Solving Skills

Finding the connection between academic pursuits and real world application can be a challenge. I don’t really use calculus and trigonometry in my day-to-day life, but that doesn’t mean that my college education in mathematics went to waste.

Instead, it is through classes like these that I was able to develop stronger critical thinking skills. I am presented with a problem and then I have to figure out how to solve it. Through classes like sociology and anthropology, I further developed a greater sense of skepticism. As David Suzuki once said, the most important lesson that science can teach is skepticism. It may sound simple, but I learned how to question everything and to develop my own opinions.

Persevering Through Adversity

Remember how I mentioned “building character” at the top? While these kinds of life lessons can also be learned elsewhere, I gained a profound understanding of perseverance from looking for my first job placement as part of the Arts Co-Op Program. I recognized that my academic degree would benefit from real-world work experience and that’s why I signed up.

However, for that first round of hiring, I submitted over 50 applications for a wide range of positions and went to more than a dozen interviews, only to come up empty. It was discouraging, to say the least, and I started to value as a potential employee. But I stuck with it, eventually earning a very rewarding position with United Way.

Thankfully, the ensuing rounds of hiring went much more smoothly, requiring far fewer interviews and applications. I learned that you just can’t give up, but you do need to adapt. Recognize what went wrong and do better next time.

Is It Worth the Expense?

A university education isn’t for everyone. There are many successful people out there who never graduated from college, but taken as an aggregate, those with some form of higher education tend to fare better than those who do not. It’s up to you to decide whether it is worth the financial burden and the time commitment. There is absolutely an opportunity cost to be considered here.

For my part, I graduated free of debt. I was able to earn some scholarships along the way, supplemented by part-time jobs and my full-time co-op placements. It also certainly helped that I was still living at home, minimizing my living expenses. I recognize that not everyone has that kind of opportunity. For me, even though my university degree doesn’t have a direct connection to my current career, I am very glad that I attended college. I wouldn’t be the same person without that experience.

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Michael Kwan Freelance Writer

4 Responses to “Why My University Degree Wasn’t a Waste of Time and Money”

  1. Ray Ebersole says:

    College isn’t the beat all. Honestly, I see college graduates in my field all the time and laugh at what they spout when asked a question or confronted with a problem in the real world.

    I would hire a person with 5 years experience and no degree in the field before I would hire a recent college graduate. College is fine for memorizing, learning facts and best case. It teaches nothing about real world at all.

    My take on College 😉

    • Michael Kwan says:

      The pure facts have some value, to be sure, but even more valuable than that, college can help to teach somehow how to think, how to analyze a situation and how to solve novel problems in creative ways. I’m not saying that real world experience can’t teach the same things, but college and university is one way to do it.

      • Ray Ebersole says:

        You know Michael I wrote that comment in July 2012 a full year before they reorganized our IT department here at the school district in Sarasota. To do the job that was created for what I was currently doing you needed at least and Associates in Arts (AA) degree from a 2 year college.

        At that time I did not have a degree, I had went to college or university for almost 4 years and more than enough credits here and there, but no degree. So, I did not qualify for the job that was created in the reorganization which was a salary jump of $4000 and was left to revert back to a school based tech support.

        I did not take this lightly, as you well know, I went to the State College of Florida that is located in Sarasota/Bradenton to finish my degree. It took from May 26th until August 6th, 4 courses from Short Story literature to American History I. A lot of people with degrees took positions that I was qualified for based on knowledge, years of hands on experience and overall ability but one was still available because no one had qualified the first time it was posted.

        I applied for that posting and I now have that position based on having my degree and being the most qualified for the position.

        I still believe that college is not the beat all for being able to do a job and I am still more qualified than a lot of people coming out of college with no experience. I do not think college teaches you what really happens in the real world. There is no substitute for hands on experience. But there is no substitute for the experience of college and having the degree to show you spent the time learning the requirements for a job.

        Lastly, I believe to learn how to analyze and solve problems in college you need to take the right courses. Most people only take the minimum required courses in Math or Science, which are the two main disciplines you learn how to analyze. There are others, but to me math is the foundation for learning how to solve problems and analyze things. That is all it is. In fact, I believe that it is the most important subject you can take to succeed in the world.

        I believe it is foundation of “Reading, Writing and Arithmetic” because once you have the reading and writing foundations Arithmetic teaches you everything else. Problem solving, analytical thinking, spacial reasoning and common sense thought.

        In the last year I have learned to always follow through with what I start, no matter how much I think something else is more important because they are really important in the whole scheme of things.

  2. NewLaunch says:

    I agree with Ray, job experience matters more than a degree, though it still gives you the edge.

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