The Greatest Fraud of All

Sadly, most of the advice you’ve been given, the so-called “reasons” why you should go to university, are antiquated and no longer apply in the post-2008 wasteland in which Millennials now need to find their way.

This is an open letter to all the poor high school students who are applying to university this year. I’m going to tell you what I wish someone had told me, stuff that might have saved my family a lot of money, and me a lot of time and existential angst.

Dear High School Seniors:

This month is the time when you’ll finally be applying to university, after years of preparation and being told, either directly or indirectly, that university is the path you need to take. If you go to university you’ll grow intellectually and socially, give your parents a reason to proud, and best of all, you’ll get good jobs and make good money. If you don’t, you’ll be an uneducated slacker among a generation of intellectual hotshots, and you’ll work at McDonald’s and die miserable and alone.

Any of this sound familiar? Well I’m here to tell you that it’s all bullshit and to strongly advise the following: DO NOT GO TO UNIVERSITY. DON’T. SERIOUSLY, JUST DON’T DO IT. Take the application PIN given to you by your guidance counselor and toss it in the toilet. Tell your parents to leave the education funds where they are, accruing interest that will help you pay for education that will be of tangible use, that will actually get you a paycheque.

The university industry — and yes it is an industry — is nothing but giant fucking pyramid scheme that truly benefits a select few and leaves the rest out of pocket and dejected. You may as well give your money to Bernie Madoff. Like many pyramid schemes, universities started out as legitimate businesses that could benefit most of the people who invested in them, but those days are long over. Sadly, most of the advice you’ve been given, the so-called “reasons” why you should go to university, are antiquated and no longer apply in the post-2008 wasteland in which Millennials now need to find their way.

You do have a choice even if it doesn’t seem like you do; you don’t have to go to university to get a job that pays a living wage, even in this economy. The following are some of the lies my classmates and I were told that compelled most of us to go the university path, and the truth about where we are now.

If you go to university, you will make more money.

This was the number one reason that I went to university and one of the most complex to address, so here goes. All my life it had been shoved down my throat — by family, family friends, guidance counselor, teachers, and even some in the media — that having a university education was a virtual guarantee of a middle-to-upper class lifestyle. You would not be poor if you had a degree under your belt.

While it is still true that the overall poverty rate among people who have a university degree is somewhat lower than among those who don’t, plenty of people I know who have degrees have lived in poverty, or very near it. They live paycheque to paycheque, have no savings, and have to turn down nights out with friends. What happened to the comfortable living that those of us who sweated and bled for our degrees were promised?

Just a few decades ago, many employers would pay their employees more just because they had a degree. Having a university-educated employee was considered an asset and a premium would be paid, even though time spent at their jobs would still be the key to raises and bonuses. But now far, far more people have a bachelor’s degree, and like any currency the more of them are out there the lower their value, and getting paid extra just for having the degree doesn’t happen anymore.

It’s not uncommon these days for people in minimum wage jobs to have degrees; if that’s the only job they can get, they’ll take it, and the employer won’t pay them anything more just for having a university degree. It’s a buyer’s job market out there, and employers no longer care what education you have unless it specifically relates to the work you’re doing for them. This means most BAs are useless on their own, including the general arts degrees that I and many of the lawyers I know got.

All good jobs require a university degree.

This is just plain false. It’s true that for some jobs that are generally high paying, such as doctor, lawyer, nurse practitioner, certified accountant, engineer, etc., you need to have an undergraduate degree as a prerequisite for professional training. If you have decided to pursue one of these careers, then by all means go for your undergraduate degree, but if you drop these career plans, also drop your bachelor studies.

I know plenty of people with well-paying, secure jobs who do not have university degrees, and have earned what they have through hard work and simply putting in their years. Of a dozen legal assistants in my firm, only two of us (myself included) have university degrees, and we are the two lowest paid people in the office. What? That can’t be true, you say. It can and it is, because of the Big E: Experience. Experience is the one thing that trumps everything else on the job market, and I learned that the hard way. If I had bypassed university I would still be doing what I do now, but making substantially more money because I would have more years of experience under my belt.

No one will hire you without a degree/The person with the degree always gets the job.

By the time I entered grade 12 I had decided that I was no longer interested in being a lawyer, and planned to go to college after undergrad for either public relations or law clerking. Neither program required a university degree, so why did I still go to university? Because so many people had told me that not having a degree would be a huge disadvantage on the job market. Some family friends who had been to university admitted to me that the jobs may not require degrees, but since employers can ask for it, many of them will just because they can. If a company had two equally qualified, impressive candidates, and one had a degree and one did not, the one with the degree would always get the job. Or so they said.

Occasionally, an employer may really see the value of someone having a university degree, mostly because it shows that you’re dedicated enough to see things through. When I was looking for my entry level legal job, a couple of lawyers I interviewed with said that they were more interested in my honours degree than my law clerk diploma, because it showed them I was dedicated and hard-working, and that I could learn the job I needed to do. But again, experience trumps education, and if one candidate is more experienced in the field, they will likely get the job whether they have a degree or not. The firm that did hire me never mentioned my degree, and I honestly don’t think they cared; my college diploma got me in their door, and on my way to good salary and a career I love.

Oh, and another dirty little secret no one tells you: even though you don’t learn marketable, practical skills in university, having a degree will mark you in the eyes of many employers as overqualified. Getting low-skill jobs like retail or restaurant work can actually become harder once you have the degree, and when you’re desperate for work, any impediment to employment can be disastrous.

The money will be worth it, even if I go into debt.

NO IT WON’T. Despite the fact that everyone gets into university somewhere (first years are a great cash cow, especially since many people drop out before completing their program), the cost just keeps going up and up and up and up. The cost goes up while the value goes down, and you’re faced with one of two shitty prospects: (1) your parents and/or relatives pay for your education, and you have to live with the fact that their money was wasted on a degree that didn’t help you in any real way, or (2) you borrow all or much of the money, and will likely have to add to that debt load to get further education that actually gets you a job. Student debt is good debt if it’s incurred for education that actually gets you a job.If you get a university degree that you never use, then that debt, while not bad in the way credit card debt or bloated auto loans are, is not worth the interest that you will pay on it.

Something else to keep in mind: government student loans cannot be discharged under bankruptcy until you’ve been out of school for seven years or more. Before you balk at the B word and think that it can never happen to you, think again. About eight per cent of Canadians will declare bankruptcy at some point in their lives, often due to extenuating circumstances like a job loss or a medical crisis. Thousands more will file consumer proposals as an alternative to bankruptcy, but those cannot include recent student loans, either. In this shitty, unreliable economy, it’s more important than ever to avoid debts that cannot be discharged if worse comes to worst. You can rebuild your credit after insolvency proceedings, but if you have student loans in default that you cannot discharge, that may be impossible.

University will help you grow as a person/Those will be the best years of your life/You’ll regret it if you don’t go/Education enriches your life in ways money can’t

Whether or not any of these hold true is unique to each person, and they have little to do with concrete, tangible things like salaries and jobs, so I can only speak for myself here.

University will help you grow as a person

Maybe, but the late teens and early twenties are formative years no matter where you are or what you’re doing. You have more control over your personal growth than you think, so don’t let anyone tell you that you need to choose one path over the other in order to “find yourself.” You don’t need to find yourself, as you’re already everything you’ll ever need.You just need to find what brings out the best in you.

Those will be the best years of your life

For your sake, I hope that’s not true. If you peak at the ages of 18 to 22, what more is there to look forward to? University life is not what you see in the movies, and if you still need to be told that, you’re not ready for the real world.

You’ll regret it if you don’t go

No you won’t. Not going to university straight out of high school or a gap year does not bar you from pursuing it later in life. In fact, if you wait until you’ve established a career, and can save up the money to pay for it outright, you’ll be better off. The chances are much higher that you will regret it if you do go to university. I know I do, and it’s one of the biggest regrets of my life. My mother insists to this day that the money my family paid to cover my tuition and books was well spent, and there is some small amount of solace in knowing someone thinks my degree is worth more than the paper it’s written on. But even if the money wasn’t a waste, that’s four years of my life I’ll never get back. Four years I could have spent in practical, career-prep education and then making money.

In November of 2013 I hit rock bottom (not the only time I’ve been at rock bottom, but the most recent). I was 25, two months out of my law clerk program, still unemployed, completely broke, and unsure of when I would get a job. Even after all the money my family put into my education, I was still sitting on a pile of debt, most of it incurred getting the diploma that eventually did get me a real job. Another big chunk was my own stupidity, but a not-small portion was back-dated living expenses from when I was underemployed or unemployed after finishing my degree. I couldn’t even afford the prescription drugs I have to take for my anxiety disorder and my parents had to step in. My accounts were in overdraft, my credit cards were maxed out, and the bright future I’d been promised by all the university pimps seemed as fantastical a prospect as a skinny, sober Rob Ford.

All this would have been bad enough on its own, but it was during this miserable time that I realized that everything I had been told about the benefits of university education had been a pile of shit. So much of my life had been spent chasing a mirage in the desert, and I was stuck in the blazing sun with no water.

Education enriches you in ways money can’t.

Whatever the fuck this hippie dippy shit means, I know it doesn’t pay bills. You can educate yourself without a formal institution sucking your money and time out of you.

Alright, so you say now, but if I don’t go to university what do I do?

I’d suggest that all of you take at least a year off after high school to work and have some time outside of an academic setting to consider what you really want to do. You’ve been in school since you were a toddler, so give yourself a break to find out who you are outside of the education system.

During your off-time, research the job market, talk to as many people as possible who can help you and guide you, and figure out the most direct and cost-effective root to your chosen career. If after much soul searching you choose a career that requires a bachelor’s degree, then go for it. If your career choice doesn’t require a degree, save yourself a lot of time, money, and eventual heartache, and don’t bother with it. Whatever you choose to do, know that getting your entry-level job will be no picnic, so plan for a long job hunt of three to six months.

Use this time to get to know yourself better, and figure out what your true desires and ambitions are. There are so many voices telling us what we should do, what we should want, and how we should go about making something of our lives. This is your future, not that of your parents, or teachers, or guidance counselors or anyone else. If you choose a different path than the one they expected or wanted, that is their problem, not yours.

I write about royalty, religion, law firm life, and the strange times we live in. Life is a freak show. Let’s enjoy the front row seats. Twitter: @agnessinuvia

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