Is it worth going to university?

This post was written on my personal blog a few years ago, inspired by the fact that I had just paid off my student loans. ($463/month for 10 years — you can do the math.) For a degree in English Language and Literature? Even I’ll admit that’s pretty steep. Fortunately, I’m one of the rare few who actually used the knowledge obtained from my degree every single day, mostly because tutors work 7 days/week and never get holidays.

Although I had good reason to, I never cursed my expensive arts degree as a waste. Everything I learned, both in and out of class, helped to make me an educated, informed tutor. My university education also provided me with the academic credibility so that parents would entrust their child’s educational needs to me.

But, it wasn’t my degree that made me the kind of tutor that I was. And, it certainly wasn’t my degree that gave me the skills, experience or confidence to open and run my own tutoring business for five years. The lack of a degree in math didn’t prevent me from being one of Toronto’s top math tutors. The lack of a teaching certificate didn’t prevent me from creating, running and teaching at a private high school.

So did I really need that degree? Do you?

Articles with headlines such as “The University Degrees that may add nothing to lifetime’s salary” are easy to find. Personally, I made the choice (more than once, actually) to refuse an offer of admission to a graduate program because I realized that it would get in the way of my career, not advance it. And especially once you make the jump to being an entrepreneur, you realize you’ll likely never have to write a resume again. So, to whom would I show off that lovely M.A., anyway?

Even the notion of “needing credentials” isn’t as firm as we might think it is. I made a very good name and life for myself in the field of education despite not being a certified teacher. No, I didn’t teach in a public school. But, I was in my field, using my talents. And, I never spent a single day as a substitute taking any work I could get, nor stressing out over whether or not I made the TDSB “eligible to hire” list.

Oh, but to be a doctor, you say? Granted; but to work in health care? A multitude of options exist, many of which may get you into the profession immediately working and give you a better work-life balance in the long run. To be a lawyer? Yes; but to be an “advocate” in the English sense of the word: sticking up for the underrepresented? Opportunities abound!

No one taught me how to be a tutor, although I did learn from a lot of people. It was very much a self-directed education that involved reading, reflection, collaborating, teaching, counseling and writing. My own experience supports the notion that if we have a goal, we instinctively know what we need to learn to achieve it. Even if we find ourselves at the very beginning, and the only thing we know is, “I need someone to tell me how to get started!” — the point is, we know that much and that’s something.

That’s why I like the idea of the Personal MBA. (Tagline: Mastering Business Through Self-Education)

“You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.” – Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon), Good Will Hunting

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a time and a place for being explicitly taught. I just don’t buy the idea that, even when it comes to university or professional degrees, schools have a monopoly on knowledge and are the gate-keepers to professional success. I’m living proof that the “uncertified” do exist and do succeed, even in traditional and traditionally-certified fields.

For an interesting read, try The True Value of a College Degree where Shaun Boyd writes,

“Following graduation, I submitted my resume, application, and cover letter to over 100 employers over the course of two months. I interviewed for nearly a dozen positions — but wasn’t offered a single job. Where did I end up working? For the organization I interned at — doing a job I could’ve been doing without my coveted degree.

My friends were in the same boat. They earned their degrees but ended up working jobs they could’ve been working right out of high school. One works as a food runner at a restaurant. Another deals cards at a casino. Yet another works as a laborer for his father’s masonry business. In every case, it was a simple matter of dollars and cents: Starting salaries in their specialized fields offered less than what they made at their previous jobs.”

I’m not suggesting that you blindly reject the idea of university entirely, nor would I personally have followed that advice 15 years ago. And while I’m not professionally-credentialed, I do have an undergraduate degree which does open some doors for me. But, before you blindly accept the idea that you should go, read what others have had to say on the topic. I’m sure you’ll find it’s not necessarily as black-and-white an issue as many people believe.

Want to tell some folks about this post?