University provides no golden ticket in life

When I was little, my father told me a university degree would allow me to “write my own ticket.” But if my boys go to university, they better be crystal clear on what they want to get out of the process.

My dad said a degree would give me the good life, but my boys know it’s not true, Jo Davies writes

Students usually finish university with a nice piece of paper, a lot of debt and no guarantee of a job, Jo Davies writes. (The Associated Press)

When I was little, my father told me all I needed to be successful was to earn a university degree.

That piece of paper, he told me, would allow me to "write my own ticket." With it, I would have a high-paying career of my choice, live in a nice house, be able to take care of my future children, travel and do basically whatever I wanted. Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket couldn't have been more precious.

My father came of age during the tail end of the Second World War, when young men in university were able to do just that: get a degree and go on to a lucrative professional career of their choosing. My dad didn't have any reason to doubt that his children should chart the same course. It seemed a logical outcome: get a good education, get rewarded.

Flash forward 20 years or so, to my graduation from university with a bachelor of arts. On that sunny May morning, I graduated with more than 800 other bright young things, presumably also thinking that they had just won the prize that would assure their future fiscal security.

It wasn't until that day, sweating in my cap and gown, that I started to doubt my dad's convictions.

I looked around that massive auditorium and wondered how all of us were going to get jobs. And what exactly had my English major and psychology minor trained me to do, for pity's sake?

By then it was a little late to start second-guessing my father's advice. I was thousands of dollars in debt for student loans and there was nothing left (I thought) but to get a job and start paying the government back.

Hard lesson

I took the first job I could find, as a low-paying office clerk at a company in downtown Winnipeg. I made just enough to pay for a tiny one-bedroom apartment, buy groceries and a bus pass and repay $200 a month on my student loans.

Needless to say, I didn't feel like I had the ability to "write my own ticket." It was a hard lesson to learn, and certainly didn't leave me with much faith in the power of a university degree.

Flash forward another 25 years: my eldest son is in his first year of university at my alma mater.

He has listened ad nauseum to his father's and my rants about a university degree not being the be-all and end-all. He knows that both his parents had a hard row to hoe when it came to finding jobs that would pay well and offer long-term stability, despite being university graduates.

We've always told him that if he wanted to go to university, he had to be crystal clear on what he wanted to get out of the process. As such, he has a definite plan to become an accountant.

Few stick to 1 job

Nowadays, people are more likely to have a number of different jobs and careers in their working lifetime. The stereotype of the worker who starts with a company straight out of university and stays there until retirement is increasingly rare.

I do have friends who went to university to learn their chosen profession and are 20-odd years into a career with the same company, but they're few and far between. I'm more likely to hear of those who have gone back to school after their degree in order to make themselves more marketable in a different field, or who have started their own business.

Back in the day, skilled trades were a "second-class" option to a spiffy university degree. Nowadays, a community college education or apprenticeship looks a lot more sensible, especially when you take into account the uncertainty of today's job market.

I would be just as happy if my two younger sons decided to go into a trade, since the skills they would learn will likely be in far greater demand for the foreseeable future.

Set goals

The main thing I've learned from my experience is that it is crucial to decide exactly what your goals are before enrolling in any post-secondary institution, rather than assuming education will give you a pass to the good life.

For me, an unfocussed, shy procrastinator, university turned out to be the world's most expensive finishing school. I met my future husband there, made some lifelong friends, learned how to hold my liquor, but beyond that, it was a horrendous waste of time.

The only way to "write your own ticket" nowadays is to take a long, hard look at your skills and interests and be as clear as possible about what your goals are in terms of a career. University is an option, but only one of many, and it's certainly not for everybody.

Unlike death, taxes and the likelihood of Donald Trump offending someone in the next five minutes, it's not a sure thing. Choose wisely.

Jo Davies is a Winnipeg writer.