Are Undergraduate Degrees A Way Of The Past?

I recently read a great post over at The Outlier Model about wanting a job in the science field. I started to reply and quickly realized I was writing a book for a reply so decided to do a post about it instead.

First, head on over and read the above blog post, it’s a fantastic post about the realism behind getting a job in the scientific community (biology mainly but applies to chemistry and physics as well).

I have two university degrees, my first being a BSc in Biology. I really can’t say any education is wasted because it’s not but unfortunately good education isn’t free. If I could turn back time I would never, ever, ever, ever go into a ‘basic’ undergraduate program with a declared major. Nor would I ever recommend a high school student pursue such a route. I did very well in high school, graduating with scholarships and on the principal’s lists (top ranked graduates of the high school in Canada) but at the ripe age of 18 I didn’t know what I wanted in life, I thought I knew but I didn’t. I knew I liked, and was good at, science and of course sciences have more job prospects than arts, or so I was told (I don’t really believe this).

I really don’t think most 17-18yr old high school students really know what they want upon graduation. There is such a pressure to graduate high school and immediately pursue post-secondary education but, especially in today’s economy and the rising cost of tuition, I really don’t think it’s the smartest thing to do. I know a lot of parents fear that if their child takes time off between high school and post-secondary that they might not return to academia or that nothing will become of their child. I have to tell you that some of the most successful people I know were the ones who took a year or two off, traveled, worked and really discovered the person they were- outside of the high school walls. Most people don’t come into themselves until after graduation. Are you the person you were in your senior year? Most likely not.

Choosing your lifelong career path in the hype of hormones and emotional turmoil is not the smartest idea.

Taking time off never even had the chance to enter my mind, I was going to university to study biology and be a science rock star. I knew I wouldn’t pursue biology as a full on career (ie doing a PhD of sorts) but I also didn’t really think I would end up in year 3 of 4 in my undergrad and realize I had essentially wasted 3 years of my academic life pursuing a degree with little to no job prospects. High schools do such a good job at sugar coating university for the ‘smart kids’ that they tend to neglect the important information like, there are NO JOBS. Are high school teachers paid commission from the universities or something?

In my 3rd year I knew something had to change. I was about to graduate with 40k debt and the only job prospects paid slightly better than minimum wage. I went through university with my two best friends. We all graduated with our BSc’s and I was the only one to pursue more education. They both work full time for slightly better than minimum wage, one girl working full time and 2 part time jobs to stay afloat.

I guess the ironic part is that I ended up in substantially more debt to get my career but at the end of the day I know I made the right choice. I went back to university and became a Dental Hygienist. I graduated with my choice of job (although the market is a little saturated now but still work available) and making 3 x what I would have I stopped with my BSc. I love my job and so glad I made the choices I did.

When talking to high school students who I know want to go directly to university I tell them to apply into a program that lands you a job even if it’s not something you think you may want to do because like I said before, you really don’t know what you want at 18. Most programs have similar first year foundation classes regardless of the program so if you don’t like the program after your first year you can chose to then apply into something else but you have the security of knowing you will graduate with a degree that will get you a job should you chose to stay. The undergraduate programs I’m mainly talking about would be engineering, nursing or finance, all of which you can apply into from high school (vs. programs that require at least first year prerequisites to get into).

My sister in law was going to apply to do her basic BSc because she was thinking about pharmacy or nutrition as careers but wasn’t sure. I encouraged her to apply into nursing (something she didn’t think she’d like) and if she didn’t like it, apply to the other 2 programs after her first year  because they both require first year pre-reqs which can be satisfied through nursing (1st year bio, chem, math etc.). That conversation took place 7 years ago, she’s now a successful OR nurse and loves it. She has job security with amazing benefits, I’m so glad for her.

I don’t want to sound like I’m bagging on all undergrad programs, on the flip side I know many successful people who have stayed in their fields and done very well but they are few and far between. It sickens me to see such well educated people not be able to use their skills and education. What use to be an honor and necessity for jobs, basic undergraduate degrees are a way of the past I think.

There are still many great university and college programs out there, but try and get into something with more definition and job prospects. Or take time off, figure yourself out and then pursue your career so you don’t end up with a degree for the sake of having a degree and debt because even if your education is paid for, it’s wasted money if you can’t get a job.

How We Ended Up Over $300,000 In Debt

You’ve found us! I should start from the beginning. When we were both in first year university we, like many students, were offered a credit card. A really pretty one with a picture of our campus on it. It was great, personalized just for us, sign us up! And so it began…

Her Story:

I wanted to go to university, actually it wasn’t an option, I was going to university, I just didn’t have any money to pay for it. I grew up in a single parent household and although my mom had a great healthcare profession she either didn’t think about it or didn’t have the money to regularly contribute to RESPs for my sister and I. When the time came for post secondary every single penny went on some form of credit, be it line of credit, student loan or credit cards. I had a part time job but not enough to pay for anything more than my books (which, lets be honest is a huge chunk of money in itself). By the end of my undergraduate degree I managed to rack up $32,000 in student debt and probably $2,000 in consumer/credit card debt. By the age of 21, I had $34,000 debt.

What’s even worse is that, although no education is wasted, my degree wasn’t going to get me much beyond a minimum wage job, the only option I had was to further my education. Back to school I went and although I have  a great career now, and zero regret, by the end of my second degree I managed to add another $15,000 in student loans, another $10,000 in lines of credit and about $13,000 on…credit cards…Yup. I put over $10,000 on credit cards to pay off tuition and books that my loans/LOC’s wouldn’t cover. My program was over $13,000/year, not including books and other incidentals and maintaining a part time job while in this program was not optional. I couldn’t do both and focusing on my overpriced education was priority. I should mention that as of a few years ago you’re no longer allowed to pay for your tuition with credit cards at this particular university. Too late for me. By the end of my second degree, before my life had started, I now had $106,000 in DEBT. ONEHUNDREDANDSIXTHOUSANDDOLLARS!!!! {Vomit}.

His Story:

His story is a lot less scary. Hubby went to university, then collage, racking up a total of about $10,000 total in line of credit and student loan debt. He has a credit card maxed at $2,000, not a huge deal. Then he went and married me and my $106,000 deficit bank account, he must really love me!

Our Story:

To top off my $13,000 in ‘school credit card’ debt, his $2,000 credit card, together we also owe another approximate $5,000 in various credit that we can’t really account for. We have a vehicle loan together, outstanding at approximately $29,000 and a mortgage currently outstanding at about $233,000. We both have good careers but, especially now that we have a baby (and I’m on maternity leave) extra funds for additional payments beyond the minimum for credit cards is near impossible. We have applied for consolidation loans twice for the credit cards and were denied twice because, surprise, surprise our debt ratio is too high.

After years of making minimum only payments, getting no where and being denied the consolidation loans we investigated credit counselling and starting a debt management program(DMP). We’re now in the process of starting with them and paying off our unsecured debt (all credit cards and one line of credit) totaling approximately $24,000, making no additional payments it will take us 54 months to pay off and complete stage one of our debt freedom plan. Our goal is to be finished with the DMP in 36 months. We want to throw every addition penny/tax refund and added income month and cut 18 months off our term. I think we can do it through proper budgeting. Once the DMP is complete we’ll tackle our other debts individually. I will be making up a plan to share once everything is well established with the DMP.

I will add that we have in the last three years paid off three credit cards ourselves that I didn’t add in the above detail and paid thousands off our lines of credit and student loans so they’re currently not sitting at their maxed limit, although still quite high.

Join us on this long journey to freedom and no longer worrying about money!