Do you need to go to university right after high school?

The typical high school student carries on immediately to higher education. The typical high school guidance counsellor recommends nothing else. Neither does the typical parent.

But here’s an interesting question to ponder: is this the right thing to do?

There’s three things that underlie questioning the rush to stay in the classroom: paying for your education, buttressing your résumé for the job search after your education, and knowing what you should be studying.

Paying for your education

Most students go on to higher education fairly close to home. One of the key reasons that they do that is that most jurisdictions (states, provinces, countries) favour their own residents with lower rates than they do those who cross borders to go to school.

Let’s face it: higher education isn’t cheap. The vast majority of attendees don’t go there by writing a cheque (or having their parents write one): they go using student loan programs of one sort or another.

While you’re in school, those loans are a “someday” problem. Once you’ve graduated and headed off to work, they become a very real one.

They limit what jobs you can consider: if you need to make at least $50,000 per year to handle a minimal apartment, food, transport, etc. plus pay off your loans, then a job at $40,000 is one you can’t take. It’s tough enough right now getting a solid foot on the ladder; do you really need to try to do it carrying lead weights?

My daughter was extremely fortunate, in that she finished high school early thanks to program acceleration. Almost all her classmates rushed off to university, entering first year at fifteen. She didn’t.

Instead, she went to work for three years. She built her résumé, and her skills — and she built her bank account.

When she was the same age as “regular” high school graduates, she applied to universities. But she applied internationally, knowing she could pay the international student rate — and graduated debt free.

From where we sit at PDD, there’s a lot of smart thinking buried in that. There’s even a lot of smart thinking in graduating at seventeen or eighteen and taking three years to work and pile up money before going to school so that you come out the other end without debts.

Being without student debt when you’re establishing your career gives you far more options than rushing to get on the job ladder at 22 instead of 25 ever will. If that’s true at near zero interest rates, it’ll be even more true as interest rates start to rise in the years ahead, making the burden of debt worse.

Buttressing your résumé

If it’s not clear now to you that every job you strive to acquire is going to have literally thousands of competitors trying to get it alongside you, pay attention. The Internet has made flooding employers with résumés cheap — and it’s quite typical for a company to have hundreds of inbound résumés within hours of posting an opening.

What’s more important, with floods like this, most résumés are now read electronically by computer programs. Pattern matching technology is used — but it tends to be fairly explicit. In other words, the kind of recognition that comes from a human being is missing. Keywords that match, on the other hand, help your résumé drop through to the point where a human being even sees it.

So while you’re filling your bank account for higher education (and a degree is necessary, with so many jobs specifying that you have one), take the time to make sure you stack the deck with useful keywords and accomplishments.

Even working at a fast food restaurant can give you some of these. Volunteer work can help add ones your low-level, post-high school jobs can’t give you. Treating these short working years before going on to higher education as a way to flesh out your résumé to show business skill, office skills, a good work record, etc. and you’re two steps ahead of the other thousand people with a newly minted degree.

I mentioned my daughter earlier. With a high school only education, she was an office manager and assistant to a veterinarian, a programmer and gift shop operator for a museum, and a tour guide. She got to add archiving skills, office technologies, cash handling and elementary bookkeeping, etc. alongside the specifics of the roles.

While none of these positions paid more than a dollar or two per hour above minimum wage, the discipline of saving allowed her to cover the costs of an international bachelor’s degree, living abroad, and flying back and forth for holidays (and her summer work was always back in Canada, but never in the same city we lived in).

What should you study?

Few high school students truly know what they want to do in life. Oh, they have the standard answers: business person, doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc. What they don’t really know, yet, is what would please them.

Kenneth Deffeyes, when he was the Chair of the Department of Geology at Princeton, used to insist on teaching the 100-level course in the subject. His reason? “No one comes to university wanting to be a geologist.” Many subject areas are like this: they’re not taught earlier, or are barely touched on, and thus students discover they like the subject only by taking it once they’ve arrived at higher education.

The other thing that opens up potential subjects that would become passions is experience. That’s what those few work years before going on to higher education can bring — either through the jobs, the volunteer work, or through other activities.

Career and Personal Planning offerings in high schools use standard job fairs, standard brochures, and the professions as their starting point. No wonder the plans of young students lack the same breadth that available courses do!

The same applies before going to graduate school…

Once again, when you’ve finished your bachelor’s degree, don’t just automatically carry on. Yes, far too many positions capable of paying off a pile of student debt require a Master’s degree these days. But take a breather and think carefully, again. Maybe take a year to work, restock the bank account, and gather more skills and experience from which to decide programs.

But even if you do carry on immediately, if you’ve gone to university with experience, you’re more likely to choose more carefully than if you’ve never done anything other than go to school. There’s a place in the job market for the person with an M.A. in English, History, or Philosophy, just as there is for the person with the M.B.A. or M.P.P. (Master of Public Policy). But the person with outside experience is more likely to have configured the ability to capture that position with their M.A. than the one who’s waited to the end to start thinking about the problem.

So do you need to go to university right after high school? No. It’s a leftover from the days when once you left school you never went back.

But these days, we go back to the education well again and again in life. So that means we don’t need to rush into it at the front end as we used to.

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