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In my opinion

Undergraduate education, who needs it?

I thought an undergrad degree would be the ticket to a good job, but now that I'm at university, it's the learning that really absorbs me.


A recent forum on education on CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition prompted one listener to respond on the program’s website, questioning the need for a degree at all. The commentator claimed to have rarely used said degree, noting that he (or she) rarely even mentioned it when applying for a job these days.

I heard a similar argument last summer from an older friend of mine, a tremendously successful businessman. “I never use my degree,” he said, somewhat in response to my own talk of being back in school at the mature age of 35.

But I wondered then, as I wondered when I read the online comment, if the story being told was the true story. Is it possible that these people never used their degrees? That, at the age of 22 or 24, as they worked to establish themselves in their career that their degree really meant nothing? That they were not mentioned on the resumés they submitted?

I find this unlikely. It is more likely that after 20 years of building up a professional resumé, their degrees have become irrelevant, because the work they’ve done speaks for itself.

I think that that is delightful.

I also think that there are professions and individuals who require no formal university education. My own family includes a tremendously successful dancer and choreographer who is both brilliant and magnificently educated, all without benefit of traditional university schooling. Surely the ability to make both a contribution to society and a satisfying career without a degree is beyond question; thousands of people do it in this country and elsewhere.

However, it is equally true that for many, many people, a university education and subsequent degree provide, in the most mercenary sense, a key to open that first door that would otherwise remain closed. What happens after that is up to the individual, but having successfully completed a university program increases the odds of having your CV considered, at the very least. Browse the classifieds in any local paper and you will see employers looking for degreed people to fill jobs for which, arguably, no degree is actually necessary.

This is all preamble. Two years into my university education, I have revised my opinion about why university is good in the first place. I came to university to get a degree. As a single mother with high-school education, I had to find a job that would allow me to support my family, and yet it was nearly impossible for me to do so. A degree wouldn’t guarantee me a job, but it increased my odds of finding one. I still don’t (yet) have a degree, and on paper I am no more employable than when I began. Yet, I know without question that I am a fundamentally altered person, and that change makes me both more likely to get a job and more likely to contribute well to the society I live in.

It’s not that I know a bunch of big words that I didn’t know before, or that I understand the rise of populism in British Columbia or the way evangelical Protestantism contributed to the rise of democracy in present-day Canada. While these things may interest me, they don’t make me a better person or a good employee.

Instead, what I have gained – what I think is the critical gift of an undergraduate education – is confidence. I know that I am capable of learning, thinking, writing, working. Before, I felt a little “less than.” What did I have to offer, I wondered, as I filled out job application after job application. Employers wondered, too. Now I am not so uncertain. I know that when I leave with that simultaneously loved and loathed “piece of paper” (and I will leave with it, of that I am certain), I leave a different person. I leave with a greater understanding of my world and my community. I leave with a greater understanding of myself.

This is the part of a university education that is unquantifiable for those of us who are not self-made. I would argue that this is far more important than the ultimate piece of paper; and it is why I am no longer in university in order to get a job but instead, in order to learn.

Perhaps people with well-established careers forget that this is the ultimate gift of education. This is why it is worth it, even when the end is uncertain and the means are not clear.

Kyla Hanington is an undergraduate student in history at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C.

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  1. fiona / November 4, 2010 at 12:59

    marvellous piece!

  2. stefan / November 4, 2010 at 13:49

    Interesting topic, provocative title.

    From a different perspective, being one of those across the pond in Europe, I feel that my studies (which no longer is my working field) have given me a toolbox. From that toolbox I can call upon skills, like consume course literature, read articles, follow scientific news and so on.

    Go get your toolbox at a university, then apply it on the real world.

  3. Jon / November 4, 2010 at 14:25

    I think it’s marvellous if an undergraduate degree helps you (or anyone else) either to feel more confident or even to get a good job.

    But, to take your title seriously, surely you shouldn’t *need* a degree for either purpose. People *should* feel that they are “capable of learning, thinking, writing, working,” with a degree or without. They shouldn’t be overlooked or undervalued simply because they don’t have one.

    Personally, I’m in favor of making degrees completely unnecessary: neither attuning them to the demands of the job market, nor treating people without them differently from those who have them.

    But on the other hand, I think that people *need* to be able to do the completely unnecessary. Which is why everyone should have the right to go to university if they so choose, without ever feeling that they have to.

  4. Des / November 5, 2010 at 02:23

    Excellently stated! It is a huge part of what the degree is actually about!!! 😀

  5. Clever's Take / November 5, 2010 at 04:13

    I know people with their got their masters studying things they don’t make profitably anymore and they’ll jump at the chance for a job doing direct sales because it gets them out of the slump of working in the fast food industry.

    I may be changing the details a little, but the story is the same. Make the wrong life choice when you’re 18 and you’ll spend your last days working at Chapters for minimum wage wondering why you were so fascinated with ‘Ancient Spanish Literature.’

    Don’t get me wrong, studying the arts and social sciences is excellent and fulfills a necessary role in the world and our lives. Too bad you end up financially worse off than if you just didn’t get an education at all.

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