Student Survival Guide: Reality 101

Knowing why you’re in school can hold key to your success

Student Survival Guide 2012

Knowing why you’re in school can hold key to your success

She’s sitting in my office, a sweet young woman. We’re discussing her latest “D,” and she confesses she’s pulling Ds in first-year sciences, too. I ask about her career plans.

“I’m going to be a doctor!”

Her parents are doctors, and no other career has been suggested. The problem is, she’s not going to make it. So I ask what floats her boat. After a tragically long pause she smiles: “I love flowers!”

“Well then,” I enthuse, “maybe you should become a florist or get a horticulture diploma and—”

“No. I have to be a doctor.”

Her parents have set her up for failure and misery. After a hard slog and buckets of bucks, she’ll likely scrape her B.Sc., but she’ll never make med school. She’d probably make a great florist.

That’s one kind of sad case, the Deluded. More common are the Bemused. First-year — and sometimes fourth-year — classrooms are packed with students lacking any realistic notion why they’re there. They typically take the cushier courses that might lead to entry-level management or post-grad professional studies. But many will end up as baristas, not barristers, and they’ll be paying off their student loans for years. Now there’s a recipe for bitterness.

You have two good reasons for attending university: a passion for ideas and knowledge, and career preparation. If the former applies, you’ll be happy and you’ll gain the philosophical maturity to weather a stormy job market. If the latter, now’s the time to get real. What will this degree do for you?

You might get a terrific education from inspiring teachers, meet memorable people, and springboard into the perfect career — or you might be unhappy for four years and emerge with a useless degree and massive debt. Campus counsellors are overwhelmed by students suffering depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and addictions. The National Student Loan Centre says average repayment time is 9.5 years: a loan of $20k will cost you over $10k in interest.

Youth are in a real bind. First, most employers expect post-secondary qualifications because high school diplomas no longer guarantee literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills.

Second, micro-managing parents ignorantly or snobbishly consider university the only option. And if they’re paying the piper, they can call the tune, to the detriment of their kids’ integrity and independence.

Third are the universities themselves. It’s all about the money. Time was, inadequate students got their B.A.C. (Bounced at Christmas). Now, almost nobody fails. In “Failure to Fail” (The Walrus, April 2008), Jay Teitel concludes that students can repeat courses until they pass because universities need their cash cows. The unofficial motto of every college and university is “recruit, accommodate, retain.”

Again, universities are resources of brilliant research and stellar teaching, but you weren’t put here to fund them. If you’re not sure why you’re going to university, don’t go. At least, not yet, unless you’ve won scholarships and can’t defer.

Some students try an experimental year (“I’ll figure it out once I’m there”). Bad move. My daughter Maggie, who’s just finished up a year as president of McGill’s undergrad student union, explains: 1. Freshman year isn’t typical: huge classes, sometimes bizarre prerequisites, and a distracting new social life. 2. Once you’re in, there’s pressure to stay. 3. Employers sometimes prefer people who never went to university over those who dropped.  4. This experiment is costly.

Others worry that, if they don’t enroll immediately, they’ll never go (and end up freezing to death in a dumpster). Wrong. My best students were disproportionately mid-twenties or older — focused, perseverant and responsible, every prof’s and employer’s dream.

“When you’re out supporting yourself at a crap job, you’re motivated to get a better education,” says Kirsty, a mid-twenties student at UVic. “If you pay your own way, you work harder. I saved money, so I’m graduating debt-free, and I’ve already got a solid employment record.”

And remember, “post-secondary” doesn’t necessarily mean academia. Check out the alternatives: technical colleges, trades, and entrepreneurship (Google “successful people who dropped out”). Canada is screaming for tradespeople while tens of thousands of social sciences (etc.) grads mill around job centres.

My neighbour replaced early-retiring tool and die makers (averaging $80k/yr) with Europeans because she couldn’t find any in Canada. Then there’s the electrician who bagged his dream job of servicing Whistler ski lifts. At 23, when his debt-burdened university friends were graduating jobless, he’d already bought a house. And he gets to ski every day.

Some folks are ideal university material, on track to create the lives they want. Too many are underemployed or unemployed, in debt, and angry because they bought the lie that everybody needs university.

My friend Danny, who’s walking into a well-paid job after finishing an environmental technologies diploma, says several of his cohorts enrolled after getting nowhere with their university degrees.

This is your life we’re talking about. As they say, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance. Ignorance of the best education choice for you can cost too much. M

Hilary Knight taught university English for 21 years. Check out her website at   

Read all the 2012 Student Survival Guide stories here:

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