College is not for everyone

Chris Reads
5 min readOct 21, 2022

…in a resource-scarce uber-capitalistic world. It would be great if everyone could be university educated in the classical sense, to follow a curated curriculum of liberal arts courses and learn to think critically amongst a group of similarly-aged and like-minded peers. Unfortunately, we live in a society…the aforementioned one, where university is not for everyone.

Primary and secondary education provides students with the tools they need to function within society, to be effective members of the capitalist machine. They learn their reading, riting, and rithmatic, as well as a primer in other subjects so that they understand the Holocaust happened and the Earth isn’t flat. Students learn to interact with like-aged peers, and are socialized to be mildly pleasant to spend time with. And primary and secondary education is not only free, but also mandatory, because it is as much teaching of knowledge and thinking as it is indoctrination and molding. If not mentally mature, students are at least equipped with the necessities to function within society without another day of schooling.

Post-secondary education builds upon that free and mandatory foundation. Whether apprenticeship, community college, or university, people pursue further education because they want further development, social, professional, or intellectual. In the developed world today however, a university degree is seen as a staple. Anyone with any sort of promise is incentivized to go to the best university they can matriculate in and can afford, whether they want to or not. University holds the promise of economic and social advancement, and is a necessary stepping stone into adult life. It’s an investment in oneself regardless of what one wants. But does it truly bring these benefits?

It’s a frequent complaint that many people come out of university unable to find a job, and have to get further training from a community college. Articles are written about how university isn’t preparing students for the workforce, and listicles are created about which majors are the most employable. It then becomes the fault of the university when its graduates aren’t immediately employable in a field relevant to what they studied. Somehow, their school has failed them. But university isn’t for getting a job. That’s what more vocational programs aim to do, with classes focused on rote instruction and hands-on learning.

University was traditionally an institution of higher education, a place where education happens for education’s sake. Students attended university to further their knowledge, and then apply that knowledge on their own terms, or eventually redistribute that knowledge to others. First about religion, then about history, philosophy, and eventually the natural sciences. To have the ability to learn for learning’s sake is a privilege that likely contributed further to the exclusivity and exalted perception of university. But even into the later half of the twentieth-century, people attended university without expectation of being able to transmute their degrees into a money-making annuity. Most university programs consisted of a classical liberal education, be it within the arts or the sciences, and left their graduates with the same sort of diverse foundation of information as primary and secondary.

However, universities still focus less on churning out cogs for the assembly line, and more on critical thinking. Less arithmetic and more proofs. Less spelling, and more writing. Less memorization of dates or atomic weights, and more historical analysis or experimental discovery. Thusly, a graduate of a good university program should have learned not only the facts and the figures, but also the how and the why, for the known and the unknown.

This is more confusing when there are programs that are quite vocational emerging from these supposedly academic universities. Various graduate studies have always been quite job-oriented, classical examples being medicine and law (for which academic practice also exists), but there is an increasing focus on adding further vocational programs into the purview of universities: engineering, teaching, nursing, and of course, my favourite example, undergraduate business. Even real estate went from an accreditation to a college program — in a few years, perhaps some university will add it to their portfolio. Further complicating the issue are programs that are academic at a base, such as computer science or statistics, but are such in demand in our technocratic world that they become guarantees of money.

Of course, this isn’t a purist gatekeeping of the more vocational programs from being real university degrees. Simply by being housed in a university, with courses shared with the liberal arts programs, critical thinking is taught and developed. There is also the social aspect of university: in that it is elitist, and to be admitted to a reputable institution, one must either be smart, diligent, or rich, it’s a good environment to make friends that are either smart, diligent, or rich. This is yet another convincing argument for the importance of university education, to be socialized with those who have status and will soon gain influence.

But is that for everyone? Does everyone truly have four years and the average household income in Canada to spend on developing their critical thinking and socialization abilities? I would answer not only in the negative, but that many of those who attend university don’t even thinking about it that way. Because of the importance that is placed on a university degree, everyone feels that they need one to help them succeed. But framing the university experience as one to get a high-paying job is misleading, particularly if further study is required. Can tradespeople and entrepreneurs make significantly more than even those who graduate from vocational university programs? Surely. Can they develop critical thinking skills without the support of a university degree? Absolutely. The logical conclusion follows then, that they are not any lesser off without it.

It’s important to understand what a university degree is for. In our hyper-competitive, knowledge-based economy, it seems necessary to come out ahead. But it’s precisely this sort of thinking that has people complaining about the supposed failures of an art history degree or a gender studies degree. These programs are not designed to help their graduates secure a job after graduation, they’re designed to encourage critical thinking, develop an interest, and advance the field. They leave their studies not empty handed, but with their newfound knowledge. If they want to find gainful employment, they can apply these critical thinking skills to their own ventures, or to take an advanced degree where they can apply themselves.

Thus, if someone’s intention of attending university is solely to secure high-paying employment, then I suggest that yes, they peruse the guides on the hottest majors, the most in-demand degrees. They need to also ensure that they have great grades in whichever program they enroll in, and perhaps not care so much about the education. But if they can’t get accepted to these schools or programs, they should reconsider how committed they are to education, to the university experience. Do they truly want to burden themselves with four years of expensive tuition, when more lucrative employment is to be found elsewhere? Can they afford to do so? If the answer is no, then university is probably not for them.