Is a University Degree More Overrated than Ever?

When I was in high school, it was pretty much ingrained into our heads that university acceptance – and hopefully to one of the top five schools in the country – was the end goal.

So, I ditched the teenaged partying and cut back my part-time job hours in order to work my ass off in the final two years of high school to ensure those acceptance letters arrived at my door, some complete with scholarships.

I spent one year at McGill University before transferring to the University of Toronto, all the while remaining completely disengaged in what I was learning in my Bachelor of Arts degree. It was full of too many textbooks, too much theory and a brutal statistics course that I needed to hire a tutor to wrap my head around.

Upon graduation, I had no clue what I wanted to do. So, I focused on acting – something I had studied in private studios throughout university – and even left for the winter to Los Angeles when I was 24. All the all-night study sessions, tears of frustration and thousands of dollars that went into my degree – a piece of paper that is in my parents’ storage somewhere – seemed a little pointless. What it did offer, however, was a prerequisite to apply to a post-graduate school for public relations. This proved to be the best career move I could make thanks to its forward-thinking and hands-on approach, an internship and connections made with people in my industry.

My point is that, depending on your field, a traditional university degree seemed underrated then, and is perhaps even more so today.

We live in an economy that increasingly caters to the freelancer and is moving away from the typical 9-5 confines. You can teach yourself many of the skills conducive to this economy with a little natural talent and the help of a computer and a few programs – whether that means web design, photography, graphic design or video production and editing. Not only are there countless resources available online, of course, these skills can be fostered through internships, work experience and practice. Add these to a few solid connections and you’re good to go.

Millennials have come to age armed with the notion that we should follow our passions and that the entrepreneurial route is full of possibilities. For this reason, many people I know – some who I went to university with – are working (and loving) jobs that involve nothing they went to university for. One friend got her real estate license and is now a successful agent, one is a self-taught digital guru and another went to coding school and now not only teaches the skill, but also designs some pretty sweet apps. Another couple that I went to school with actually opened a chain of coding schools themselves to cater to the growing number of people swapping university lecture halls for innovative (yet pricey), hands-on coding schools.

A recent study by The British Psychology Society found that millennials pursuing higher education in the U.S. are more motivated than generations past by making money and they value traditional education less. The results were based on assessing surveys of incoming college freshmen conducted between 1971 and 2014 that involved over eight million students. While many saw enrolment in educational institutions important when it comes to their moneymaking cause, researchers found a 7 per cent decrease in how much millennials value education compared to Boomers. They’re more motivated by a paycheque than increasing their knowledge. Let’s not forget that university isn’t getting any more affordable, meaning that more people are starting off their careers tens of thousands of dollars in dept.

The value of a college degree isn’t what it once was; a simple BA doesn’t always cut it when it comes to a lucrative job and financial security. Earlier this year, a Washington Post article even equated the university degree to “the new high school diploma.” Drawing from research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the author argued that – thanks, in part to a decline of manufacturing jobs that required just a high school diploma – a four-year degree is now the minimum requirement for any job. In short, it isn’t “special.”

Recently, CBC released an article that revealed that – based on Statistics Canada data – most open jobs in Canada require only a high school education, leaving many jobseekers overqualified. If dollars are in fact your biggest motivator, the thing about working in the trades – whether you’re a plumber, an electrician or a carpenter – is that workers in these professions typically make a lot more than many jobs in the arts. I know a few people who have taken these jobs while building careers as actors, writers, programmers and business-builders.

While I don’t regret going to university (mainly, frankly, for the bragging rights and lifelong friends I made) and still think it’s a good idea when it comes to the choices of my younger family members, alternative forms of learning (and subsequent career building) shouldn’t be seen as “less than.” This is especially the case if money and passion are your biggest motivators.