“The best things in life are free,” I heard the radio belt-out. I believed that thoroughly until, at the age of 5, I asked the lady behind the counter in Chalk River for a little bag of penny candy. As it turns out, the best things in life were 50 cents. The bruised banana my mom left for me in my lunch bag was free.
Moving through life, the cost of the “best things” in life continued to astonish me: vacations, formal dresses, beer money, and, incredibly, education. Education was the key to happiness. I had been hearing that refrain long before high school – all the way back to when mom finished Cinderella stories with, “but she refused to marry him, because she wanted to get her University degree and get a good job first.” In Deep River, the message is: a University degree is tantamount to success.
Once I got to University, however, I was surprised. When I looked around the drunken frosh-week campus, I did not see the leaders of tomorrow. I felt stuck in overcrowded lecture halls with professors as bored with the material as I was. I was floored, then excited, and finally disillusioned, when I attained an A- in Physical Geography: a full-year course where I had skipped all but the second lecture.
I watched the money I had painstakingly saved mopping floors in the Tim Hortons’ smoking room seep through my bank account in tuition fees, boarding costs, textbook sales and ATMs. I lived on a shoe-string budget, despite spending tens of thousands of dollars. Don’t get me wrong: I was having a blast. The armchair accountant in me (I majored in Psychology) demanded to know what I was getting for my money. At the end of the year, it became clear: I had paid for five “credits”. I was buying my degree.
The Canadian University system is, in my over-educated opinion, a business model. The buy-in is $100,000.00 over four years. In that four years, as long as you fulfill your end of the bargain (make timely payments, regurgitate key words on assignments and exams, and enlist in the mandatory courses), you will emerge with two pieces of paper: a transcript and a degree. The latter, nobody will ever ask to see except your grandmother.
For free, I’ll give you three lessons you can learn in University.
- BUSINESS: The customer is always right. Going to University or College does not require a genius mind or much of a work ethic: it is a business. A time-consuming homework assignment or an unsatisfactory grade can be quickly bumped-up with a well-timed complaint (bonus points if mom or dad made a sizeable alumni donation). The student knowledge pool does not fund these small utopias – bums in chairs do. Public relations and student satisfaction can outweigh the need for academic integrity in an institution. Fear of litigation can deter an institution from standing-up for its teachers. A professor’s motivation to keep their job or secure tenure can overcome their desire to ensure the proper transmission of important knowledge.
- LANGUAGES: Universities speak in dollar bills. The dude who still spells Freud with a “y” will be graduating with the same Psychology degree you are. The “mandatory” new $300 version of the Professor’s textbook is differentiated only from last year’s $20 used textbook by three new sentences and a colour scheme. Your hard-working 4.0 GPA roommate will be denied entrance into a semester when his OSAP loan did not come through before the enrollment cut-off.
- ECONOMICS: University bachelor degrees are a dime a dozen. When everybody gets a degree, the value of all degrees declines. On a resume, University completion is the new high school. If you do not have something to supplement your shiny papers, like a trade or nepotism, you are probably going to be hanging out with your degree in your mom’s basement.
Sure, a University degree can be a step to success in many cases. A B.A./B.Sc./B.Eng. is a necessary rung on the ladder to any Professional designation or degree. As savvy consumers, however, it is important to walk into a six-figure investment with your eyes wide open and considering all available options before deciding on the default path.
As a Deep Riverite graduate from two Universities with a law degree, I understand the potential necessity of “paying to play”. However, reviewing the Sunshine List replete with Hydro tradesmen, firefighters and police officers who are not still repaying massive student loans, one will recognize that “playing it smart” can also mean not investing in seven years of University tuition and residence costs.
Are the best things in life free? Sure. Everything else costs hard-earned money. I am loathe to overspend on the very institution that is supposed to teach how to think critically. The University investment may not be the right one for every 20-something and certainly is not the right investment for most career paths.
I have learned lots since that day at DJ’s convenience store. I worked a lot of jobs, saved lots of money, blew that money on University, and came through the other end with degrees, and later a job. The things I value most, (cue: nostalgic violin music) I acquired during the time I was dropping bills, but did not actually pay for: life lessons, relationships, character. Sadly, we cannot live on the free things alone.