British Columbia·Opinion

Why the 4-year college or university degree isn't for everyone

Education beyond high school is important for many people, but the 4-year college or university model isn't always for everyone.

Today's high school graduates have several options open to them, says personal finance columnist Mark Ting

A traditional four-year college or university degree may not be the best option for many students, says personal finance columnist Mark Ting. (Lynne Sladky/The Associated Press)

Education beyond high school is important for many people, but the four-year college or university model isn't always for everyone.  Luckily today's high school graduates have several options open to them. Students can learn high-demand skills and land well-paid jobs without ever setting foot on a university campus.  

There are plenty of online resources for those looking to upgrade their skills. For example, the University of People is a tuition-free, accredited university that offers associate and bachelor degree programs in business administration, health science, computer science, and education. 

While "tuition free," they do charge administration fees: $100 US for undergraduate courses and $200 US for graduate courses. The total cost for a typical four-year bachelor's degree is $4,060 US. 

Unlike traditional post-secondary institutions, fees are paid toward the end of the course so if a student loses interest in the subject they can drop out without cost. This easy/no-cost drop option is good and bad.

It's "good" in that students can test drive many different subjects, but "bad" as I think it makes quitting far too easy. I'd prefer it if students paid a portion of the fees upfront as it would help motivate them to complete the course.

Other distance/online education sites worth considering are Coursera, EdX, Khan Academy, ITPRO.TV, and Udemy. 

The costs vary with each — some charge per course (in the $0 to $100 range), whereas others are based on a subscription model, with unlimited access to courses for $29 to $50 US per month.  

These are just a few examples, not an exhaustive list. You should do your research and find a program that works best for your budget, learning style, and career progression. 

Online courses aren't for everyone

While online courses are cheaper and allow for more flexibility, they aren't for everyone. Some students need the structure of a classroom and scheduled classes and may struggle with the discipline needed for self-study. Online courses also do not allow for the "college experience" — students miss out on the connections and social benefits of being on campus.   

At the end of the day, no matter where a person receives their education, it comes down to the skills and knowledge gained. If a student has marketable skills, they are far more likely to find a job.  

Also keep in mind that newer industries, such as technology, are more open to hiring graduates with online certificates and degrees, than employers from traditional industries. 

On-the-job training is often overlooked as a legitimate way to upgrade skills, says personal finance columnist Mark Ting. (Shutterstock / designer491)

On-the-job experience valuable

In my case, prior to enrolling in a college, university or trade school, I would like to see my children take their time to experience different things so they can see what excites them before choosing a career path.  

When — or if — they choose to pursue post-secondary education, they should then approach it like a business decision by asking themselves: "What is the expected return of my chosen degree? Is it worth the time and debt that is often incurred, or would my time and money be better served doing something else?"  

Taking time off before school

If my kids decide not to start their post-secondary education straight out of high school, I'm fine with them entering the job market and first getting some experience.

On-the-job training is often overlooked as a legitimate way to upgrade skills. Simple habits such as showing up early, having integrity in the workplace, and treating customers and co-workers with respect are in high demand for most employers.

For new high school graduates, I recommend trying different jobs to see what comes naturally, then, if it makes sense, they can go back to school.

Often working for a couple of years before going to college pays dividends. Mature students tend to have clearer career goals, can bring their work experience into the classroom, and if they saved properly, might not have to take on student debt. 

Another option for many is to start their own business. If this is of interest, I recommend doing this whether you attend school or not. It's empowering and, in many cases, doesn't take much in the way of capital to get started. A good resource is the book, The $100 Startup. There is little risk if the business fails but so much to gain if it succeeds.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Mark Ting is a partner with Foundation Wealth, where he helps clients reach their financial goals. He can also be heard every Thursday at 4:50 p.m. on CBC radio as On the Coast’s guide to personal finance. @MarkTingCFP


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