So You Want to Go to College/University

Have you decided on a career? Lots of people know just what they want to be when they grow up. Or think they do. Sometimes people get into a program and realize it would be soul-destroying to have to do this for the rest of their lives. But there are people who have a clear vision of what they want to achieve, and how they're going to do it.

Take my young friend Martha, for example. Martha is planning to be a speech pathologist. She knows where she wants to go to school, just how long it'll take to get her degree, and what the outcomes are likely to be when she graduates: where she'll likely work, how much she'll likely earn, how long it'll take to establish herself in her career.

Juxtapose this with how many young people head off to post-secondary school without a plan. They don't know what they want to be, they've just been told by parents, friends, school counselors that if they don't get some education, they'll be losers. So off they go.

Choosing this approach means you're biding time. You're hoping that a bolt of inspiration with strike and you'll figure out what you want from your life. The problem is, if you don't, you're racking up wicked amounts of debt in the meantime. And, worse yet, you really aren't motivated to take seriously the effort required to do your best, learn the most, prepare for the future.

You only have to look at the graduation, employment and default rates across the province of Ontario to get a sense of who is taking their education seriously and who isn't. University of Toronto has such a summary ready and waiting for your perusal.

Some points of note:

  • One of the highest loan default rate is in the Humanities - hey, that'd be the kids who haven't made up their minds what they're going to do yet and are biding time, right?
  • Humanities has one of the lowest graduation rates too, as does Fine Arts, and - bowl me over - computer science. The lack of graduation is probably the best explanation for the higher loan default rates.
  • Almost 15% of those who are in Computer Science, can't find jobs. Really? I guess it's an over-filled field.
  • If Theology has a 100% employment rate, why are 6.5% of graduates defaulting on their student loans? Ditto Forestry grads who have a 100% employment rate but also default almost 5% of the time. Could it be that the pay in these jobs doesn't support a body and pay debt too. After all, these aren't exactly the types you'd think of when Party Hearty comes to mind.

Okay, so what exactly is my point?

First, you have to have SOME idea of what you want to study before you go to university or college. It doesn't matter what your parents want you to do. It doesn't matter what your friends are all doing. It has to be RIGHT for YOU. And it has to be something for which you're prepared to WORK HARD. You should also have a time-frame in mind for how long you'll stay in school. You can do a two-year program and be at work in no time flat. If you're planning on getting your Doctorate (MD, Phd) then you'll be in school for significantly longer.

Second, your chosen career should have some kind of financial future. If not - hey, if you're called by God, money isn't an issue, right? - then don't make financial commitments (take loans) that you can't keep. Himself won't be happy. Ontario's Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities has a breakout by course of graduation rates and employment rates. Have a look through it to get more familiar with what's in demand. Alberta Learning Information Service has a FABULOUS resource that tells you what the job entails, what education you need, and what you'll likely earn (in Alberta).

Third, don't just wing it. Talk to people who are in the field you're considering. What's the hardest part? What do they love about their work? Does this sound like you? How long did it take to get established? What could you do in preparation for graduation that would stand you in good stead when it came time to look for a job? Will you have to move a significant distance to find work? Who else should you speak to?

Fourth, have a back-up plan. If you get into your course and find yourself in a semester that you HATE … you need a back-up plan so you don't go spiraling out of control. This happened to my friend Ian, who was in a fine arts program (he's a wonderful artist) but hated the course. So he moved over to drama. He'll likely continue with his painting - he's already been commissioned several times - but he'll get a degree in something he loves to do: musical theatre.

Fifth, choose a school that is going to give you what you need. Not every school does its best work in every program. If a school is known for journalism, for example, and you want to be a journalist, that's where you should go. Schools develop reputations within certain domains, and you should be familiar with them before you choose your school. Your student counselors can help with this.

Finally, be true to yourself. You can't go to the school your parents have chosen for you, or do the course they want you to do. It has to be your choice.

My daughter and I have a running joke going. I say I want her to be a Chemical Biologist. I like the way it sounds.
"So, what does your daughter do?"
"Ah, she's a chemical biologist."
"Oh, yes."
"You must be so proud."
"Indeed, I am."

Alex laughs at me and tells me, "You don't even know what a chemical biologist does."
"I know. I just like the way it sounds."
"Well, I'm not doing chemical biology."
"I don't care," I say, "I still like the way it sounds."
She thinks I'm an idiot. I'm happy.

You see, I don't care what Alex chooses to do with her life, as long as it's something that she's HAPPY doing. In the mean time, I can keep the "chemical biologist" myth alive and I'm happy.

What I couldn't stand would be for Alex to graduate from university with a thousand pounds of debt around her neck, wondering how she'll ever pay it off, because she's wandered through the halls of higher learning, not sure what she wants, confused about her future. That would be horrible.

It's the reality of many graduates - some recent, some not so recent - who just can't figure out how to get out from under the boulder.

Which brings me to our next topic… How much debt CAN you afford?

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