On Campus

Should I go to university if I'm not quite sure?

Until you've figured it out, it's okay to put school on hold

You wouldn’t buy a laptop only because everyone else suddenly got one, right? You’d ask yourself if you need one first. You wouldn’t buy a bike without thinking about what you intend to use it for—racing, off-road, urban transportation? You know that advertisements for the latest SUV are trying to sell you a lifestyle (the great outdoors, wide vistas, cool friends) and distract you from thinking about the actual product. But as much as we recognize these issues when it comes to other products, we often fail to see the same things when it comes to education.

If you’ve thought carefully about what you really want, and why you want it, and what you intend to do with it, then kudos. If you aren’t feeling pressured by your friends and family, pushed toward a decision you never really made, and focused mainly on lifestyle and some vague conception of success, that’s great. In that case, keep it up. But if you’re like almost everyone else, caught up in the hype to at least some degree, you deserve to hear the other side of the story.

Education is an investment. But contrary to popular opinion, it isn’t remotely like money in the bank. It’s far closer to playing the stock market. There are winners and there are losers, and every year many students graduate having invested tens of thousands of dollars, and years of their lives, in education that doesn’t pay off. There’s strong evidence that on average, university education does pay off, but that only means it’s a pretty decent bet for most people. And if you think less than most people about the investment you’re making and your plans for the future, well, betting does tend to favour the thoughtful and the informed. If you aren’t careful, you might end up on the losing side of average.

I don’t want to reduce the value of education to only dollars and cents. There’s enough of that in the media already. Many people look at that as the bottom line, and if that’s you, it’s fine to think in those terms, but even if it’s not, the same equation holds true. Education fails to pay off when you invest all that time and money and simply don’t get what you came for, whatever it may be. If you came to expand your mind, but you spent most of your time at the bar, that’s failure too. Even if you do gain something, but much less than you might have gained if you invested carefully and with more foresight, that’s also a kind of failure.

When you’re itching to buy a computer, or a bike, or a new SUV, it’s easy to feel like the money is burning a hole in your pocket. Salespeople are trained to exploit that, and they want to close the deal as soon as they can. But as consumers, we all know it’s often better to wait. We can go home and think it over. We can do a little more research, and focus on our specific needs. The money will still be there next week, or next month. And the same is true of education. Whether the money is your own or your parents’ or the government’s, it’ll still be there next year. You can afford to wait and get it right.

I know it can seem like time is against you, but time is actually the cheapest thing you could possibly ask for. You can work at some stupid service job, with low pay and minimal responsibilities, and if you aren’t too fussy about the way you live, you can support yourself for any amount of time that way. Take a year to think about things. Take two. You don’t lose any options when you choose not to jump right into post-secondary education. You only start to lose options when you do jump in, find you aren’t ready yet, and as a result make a hash of things. At that point all kinds of doors slam shut.

I would never suggest that education is unimportant. The very fact that it is so important is the best and most compelling reason to get it right. You’ll have a lot of people pushing you toward university whether you’re ready for it or not. Don’t be afraid to stand your ground and say “no,” or at least “not yet.” That refusal to make a decision, right away, may turn out to be the best decision you’ve ever made.

MORE ON THE WEB: Read Jeff Rybak’s blog at macleans.ca/oncampus. Rybak is the author of What’s Wrong With University: And How To Make it Work for You Anyway.