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Learn … or earn? Getting a job may beat going to university

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THERE are three types of university student: Those who have a career plan which is largely within their control; those who have a career plan which is largely not within their control, and those who don’t have a plan.   

The first category is made up of students planning to become doctors, lawyers and engineers. Most of these can succeed as long as they put in the work. Their success is up to them.  


The second category consists of students who plan to become athletes, musicians, actors and artists. They might work hard, but a career in one of these fields is dependent on other factors. Audiences need to want to hear or watch them, companies need to want to showcase them, and they need to out-compete others who might have greater talent. In other words, no matter how hard these students work, someone else ultimately decides whether they will succeed.  


Category three consists of humanities students.   


It’s for this third category that I wrote Don’t go to University: A decision-making guide for young adults without a plan


University is an investment in your future, and a very costly one. Getting an education is a great thing, but surely students should pay some attention to the costs involved and the potential payoff at the end.  

In other words, they should conduct a cost-benefit analysis before paying the price – a price that includes a significant amount of money, a certain number of years, and not doing whatever else they could be doing during that time.  


A future engineer might conclude that going to university is worth the investment, because he calculates that the likelihood of finding secure employment at a typical engineer’s salary is sufficient to merit the cost of going.  


An athlete or musician might conclude differently. There are other ways to train, and there are more reliable careers. The artistic or athletic disciplines might still be worth pursuing, but not necessarily as careers, and not necessarily at university.  

Then again, some might still think university is the best path because of a particular teacher or a particular programme, even after considering the career prospects and the cost. So be it.  


But a humanities student who doesn’t know what career he or she will have after graduation doesn’t have much more than a nebulous, hypothetical hope to weigh against the considerable cost. A cost-benefit analysis isn’t really even possible, because there are no real benefits to consider.   


I used to tell myself it was still worthwhile to get an education. But what can the university teach you that a library or YouTube can’t?  


Despite the provocative title, my book doesn’t advocate against going to university, full stop. It simply provides teenagers and parents with a way to think about the decision. For example, the university is your employee. Is your employee earning its wages? The university is a product that you are buying. Does it represent good value for money?   


Unless a student has a concrete plan that is fully costed out and requires university, this extremely important and life-changing decision should never be glossed over just because it’s ‘the done thing’. The burden of proof is on the university to convince you that you need what it offers.   


Once they’ve made the decision, there’s a trap that students without a plan can easily fall into when they get to university. They can get stuck in the mindset that they need to keep their options open.  

Rather than choose one discipline, learn it radically, and use it to provide value to others, they avoid choosing, and end up learning many things superficially, and nothing fully.   

Choosing one discipline means rejecting others. One cannot learn anything while trying to learn everything. This is why it’s better to have a plan. You need a specific goal to pursue, because it’s better to become a master of one thing than a master of nothing. The good news is that once you’ve learned one thing, you can open up your options again, and choose another. You have plenty of time to pursue multiple goals.  


The consequences of this ‘keeping your options open’ trap are serious. Without learning something radically – that is, top to bottom – you do not learn how to reason properly. You cannot solve problems.  

On the other hand, a skilled tradesman such as a plumber, who understands his area of expertise top to bottom, can solve problems. He has learned something radically. He knows how to reason.   


Many people speak about the advantages of pursuing skilled trades. There’s a shortage of workers in the skilled trades, they point out, tradesmen make good money, and they provide value. But a false idea persists that the skilled trades are for those without the mental capacity for university, that skilled tradesmen aren’t all that bright. This couldn’t be further from the truth.   

What is often overlooked is that, by not going to university, the skilled tradesman such as the plumber not only makes more money and provides more value to society, but he also reasons better than the humanities graduate, who only thinks he’s smarter.  

Once you’ve learned how to reason properly in one area, you can apply it to other areas, you can more easily learn new disciplines, and you can apply your reasoning ability to ideas. Many graduates never learn how to reason.  


Your goal shouldn’t be to become smart. It should be to become wise. University might be one way to do that, but if you don’t have a plan, there are almost certainly better ways.   

Try this: Learn a useful skill. Then build something. Solve problems. Then learn another skill. Build something else. Solve more problems. Repeat.  

This is the road to wisdom and wealth. For many, university is the road to dilettantism and debt.  

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Andrew Mahon
Andrew Mahon is a Canadian-British writer based in London. He is the author of Don't go to University: A decision-making guide for young adults without a plan.

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