Is high school curiosity a measure of university success?

Two Canadian scholars say a third of high school students are unsuitable for university

Photo by Marianne Helm

Photo by Marianne Helm

In What to Consider If You’re Considering University, Canadian academics Bill Morrison and Ken Coates offer a stern warning. They feel too many parents push their kids into university when they would be better off at polytechnics, colleges or apprenticing, because what they’re really after is a quick route to a good job, and universities can’t always deliver. They point out that the first-year dropout rate at 13 Canadian universities is 30 per cent and conclude that about a third of students shouldn’t have gone in the first place.

Think about that. Could it really be that a third of university students don’t belong? Doesn’t that go against the Canadian ethos to give as many people as possible a chance to better themselves? 

Either way, it’s a scary proposition if you’re a 17-year-old trying to decide what’s next.

To get a better idea of what the authors are thinking, consider their five-part “Curiosity Test.” First question: “Do I like to read? More precisely, have I read many works of serious fiction other than what some teacher has forced me to read?” Zombie books, Dan Brown and Oprah’s self-help books don’t count. Second question: “Do I watch foreign films, art films, CBC documentaries, or thoughtful PBS programs and series?” This time, horror films and Adam Sandler movies don’t count.

The conclusion is that if you weren’t interested in things like foreign films, Malcolm Gladwell or The Nature of Things in high school, you’re not curious enough to get much out of university.

While the curiosity test seems like a fair way to weed people out of elite programs such as Arts One at UBC or iSci at McMaster, it’s asking too much of most teenagers.

“If we’re only going to have students who are curious,” says Maryellen Weimer, a Pennsylvania State professor emeritus, teaching consultant and editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter, “most of our universities are going to be shutting down.”

Weimer agrees with Coates and Morrison that most students probably aren’t curious from the get-go, but that doesn’t mean they don’t belong. 
Professors sometimes ignite curiosity in students who didn’t have much when they arrived and, by the way, it’s part of the job description to at least try.

Tim Seifert, an associate dean at Memorial University, where he oversees a graduate program on post-secondary studies, echoes that sentiment. “Many teenagers do not take an active interest in world affairs or think broadly about the world,” he wrote in an email. “Yet the purpose of a university is to help our students better understand the world . . . to broaden the mind and prepare individuals to contribute to improving the human condition.”

Besides, most 17-year-olds aren’t mature enough to know what they want to do with their lives; university gives them opportunities to figure it out. 

“Would you really learn about actuarial science in high school?” says Weimer, “I don’t think so.” The same goes for microbiology, economics—even foreign films. Did anyone ever discover French New Wave cinema without having taken a film class because it sounded like an easy elective?

Coates counters that he’s taught at universities where large numbers of students don’t show up for class, can’t write a sentence and make it clear they are uninterested in learning. 

“Not only are those students wasting family money, wasting their own money and wasting everybody’s time,” he says, “they get in the way of people who really want to be there.” He’s talked to good students who say they’re missing out because they have to sit in seminars with people who didn’t bother to do the readings. I get it. I’ve been that (good) student.

Weimer says being unprepared for class is a perennial problem, but what matters more is providing broad access to education.

Of course, they’re both partly right. 

Students should be honest with themselves about whether they’re looking for the type of education a university provides, or whether they’re just looking for a fast track to a high-paying job. If a quick career is what they’re looking for, university might indeed be the wrong choice, but those people who have no clue what they want out of life at age 17—and I think that’s the majority of us—shouldn’t be scared away by the Curiosity Test. They should go to university, and if their curiosity isn’t turned on after a year or two, transfer to a vocational program or drop out and find a job. Coates and Morrison would call that a waste of time and money. I would call it a valuable lesson.


Is high school curiosity a measure of university success?

  1. Wasn’t there an article on Maclean’s just a short time ago….by a professor….who talked about all the kids who show up in university without any basics? Even proper English….and goodness knows you can see that on any comment board.

    The one I remember in particular involved kids who want to go into biology….but have no background in evolution.

    Don’t blame universities or professors or students for this.

  2. There is an alternative that is less dauntingly expensive and that’s college instead of university for a couple of years. This will work in BC, at least, and likely in other provinces as well. Colleges are half the price and the classes are smaller. They are generally less prestigious than a university, but if you are uncertain what you want to do, or if you live in a rural area or small town and you’re not quite ready for big city life, then going to college for a year is a great opportunity. Also, a gap year to work/travel could be invaluable. 17 is awfully young to be making huge life decisions that cost a ton of money.

    • That’s a personal economic decision though….it’s not going to get us a university-educated population.

  3. I definitely believe this is partly the case. This article does a good job of explaining some of the pieces I believe are a part of the problem. I find people in general do not think enough at that age about what they want to do with their lives. Typically the common pressure it to go to university to “guarantee” a job, because you “need” one to get a job. In more specialized areas such as Science, that is a definitive yes unless you have been in that area for a long time. Universities are great for field such as those, but most go in just wanting effectively “High School #2” not realizing that self-motivation and responsibility are needed for study. Most will drop because they can’t seem to find what they want there, or just can’t handle the post-secondary life of university and will instead proceed to college (which isn’t a bad choice). Most of my friends that ended up not finishing their degree found their way into a college program, or just dove right into lower paying positions.

    I just think children should think more about what they want to do with their lives; you know, dreams? It will benefit them more in adulthood to know what they want to do. I knew since I was 6 and have stayed on track ever since.

  4. Students doing a Specialist High Skills Major in agriculture in Ontario high schools are taught that there are ag related careers that will pay them (both male & female) a living wage right out of high school, what is more they WILL be in demand all around the world.
    Alas, few high schools (just 23 Ontario HS) are even offering the course of studies.
    Until parents demand & do what is right for their children…nothing will change, accepting that maybe your child would be happier IF they did not go to university would be a good start.

  5. Personally, I do not believe that University success is a matter of curiosity. I believe that curiosity is a good basis of learning until grade 6, but not High school or University. In my opinion, (even though I did not spend any of my High school years in Canada, rather than a very small “taste” that I got from Canadian High Schools) are the mark rating systems and the final tests, and, also the influence that the High School teacher has at that Final mark. I strongly believe that, if, the tests at gr.11 and gr.12 Classes were the same for all the students provincewide, one midterm, and one final, with the homework assignments being “cut down” a lot throughout the semester (meaning less homework and less impact of them on the final mark, similar to the University marking system ones), the result would be that many more students would try to have better marks, plus the ones that these professors support “do not belong at university”, would have chosen another alternative to going to University since gr.10.

    All the above, is clearly my personal opinion, which comes from the experience I had of not growing up in Canada, neither having the same type of schooling.

    Thanks to everybody that read my comment.