Don’t Go to University: A Serious Argument

We’ve been led astray. I still remember the moment when my future was dictated to me. I sat in one of those faded blue chairs with skinny steel legs. My high school guidance teacher took a quick look at me. He then glanced at my grades sitting idly on his computer and said: “Go to university. You’ll do just fine.”

All due respect, sir, but fuck you.

From a young age, we’re all told the same refrain: Go to university. If not university, go to college. Doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you want to be, just go and study the arts or humanities. If you don’t—or if you drop out—you’ll be a failure at life. You won’t get a respectable, high-paying job. It’s tacitly understood.

Time for some punk rock. It’s OK not to go to university. It’s OK not to go to college. In fact, if you’re a creator of any sort, I fucking recommend it.

I understand this is like telling someone to get married without an engagement ring. Everyone knows that it’s not worth what you pay for. It’s just a big shiny symbol. Now try to get married to the love of your life without one. Exactly.

Stay with me here.

This isn’t an easy pill to swallow.

This is going against everything you’ve been told throughout your life.

If you want to become a writer, photographer, an illustrator, a coder, filmmaker, mechanic, plumber, musician, and—in Donald Trump’s case, politician—you need to hone your craft yourself. You need to hustle. You need to fail. You need to experiment and learn for yourself. If you want to be a lawyer, doctor, mathematician or scientist, read no more. Rock on, post-secondary is required. But for the arts, for the humanities, let’s get critical here.

When was the last time you stopped and thought about your future yourself? Seriously, not what your parents want. Not what your guidance counsellor said. What do you want to do? Do you even like school? It’s cool to not like school, too. Maybe you don’t know what you want. That’s cool. Mull over a Gap Year. Repeat after me: it’s OK not to go to university.

The New York Times recently reported that only 53% of freshmen earn a bachelor’s degree in six years of schooling. That stat plummets to only 39% for college students. The cost of dropping out is at $4.5 billion (that’s a ‘b’). “If any company had as much trouble hanging on to its customers, it would go out of business,” writes the New York Times.

I believe in education. I believe knowledge makes the world a better place. I believe, however, that education is a lifelong journey. I don’t believe in trying to get A’s in a course I’m only halfheartedly interested in and won’t retain any information one year removed. I believe university is great in so many ways, like networking, experimenting with other students on projects, how to learn, and the foundation of critical thinking. I believe in true passion as learning. To do, to try, to fail, and to try again.

I don’t, most importantly, believe in soul-crushing debt that has created an overeducated and underemployed generation.

I believe that arts students with a skilled craft in mind should complete high school, then Work. On. Their. Craft. This is best done with a mentor, hours of YouTube videos, Lynda.com videos and unbridled passion.

It’s not for everyone. I repeat, it’s not for everyone. But it will 1) save you tens of thousands of dollars in tuition 2) save you four years of sitting in large, crowded rooms questioning your life 3) it will, in fact, probably make you a lot of money, and 4) put you so much further ahead in your trade in four year’s time than your colleagues in school. That’s a promise.

I ended up completing six years of post-secondary with high honours. I have an English degree and an advanced diploma in journalism. I won student awards. My name was plastered on both my student paper and magazine’s mastheads. I walked across large stages to shake hands, grab a piece of folded paper and to smile like a good boy. I did just fine.

But it cost me tens of thousands of dollars. And none of it helped me land my current job. Seriously. I didn’t even submit a resume. My work and hustle got me my job. Ditto for my prior job.

This is the point where you start yelling at your computer. “But… but…”

I know, I know. You’ve been told by every relative you know, your guidance counsellor and your barista that you need to go to post-secondary.

“It’s the only way I’m going to get a good job!” you report, spraying chocolate milk on your screen.

That couldn’t be further from the truth—anymore. Here’s why.

I’ve hired dozens of students. I’ve sat in hundreds of interviews. I glance at what school you went to and what program you studied. Glance. Some employers are even dropping the need for a degree. The vast amount of employers today are looking for a cultural fit. They’re looking for your talents. They’re looking for what you’ve done (your portfolio) and what you can do for the company. They, truthfully, could give a rat’s ass about where you went to school. In fact, according to a study in TIME magazine, “while 59% of students said they were well prepared to apply their knowledge to the real world, just 23% of employers said so.” Ouch.

With everyone holding a degree or diploma these days, the playing field has been evened. Case in point: 90% of my colleagues that I graduated with aren’t in writing jobs. Reading the Washington Post shows that “just 27% of college grads had a job that was closely related to their major.” That means three out of four of your group members are wasting their fucking time. And it might not even be the guy who didn’t contribute.

That 30-something thousand dollars in education isn’t going to move the needle for you. Sorry.

That 30-something thousand dollars in education isn’t going to move the needle for you. Because “if everyone has a degree, no one has a degree.” For your parents, 30 or 40-something years ago getting a degree did make you stand out from a high school diploma. That is no more as everyone has a degree.

What you do on the side will. How you network. How you work on your craft around the clock, experimenting, putting your work out there. How you fail fast. How you learn.

I have my name on seven books. I’ve penned hundreds of articles that have been printed around the world. I’ve travelled to five continents to shoot photography (all self-taught). I’ve been nominated for a National Magazine Award. And none of this, truly, is because of my education. In fact, when I started writing professionally, I had to unlearn how I was taught to write in university. My success is due to working my ass off, networking incessantly, and honing my craft outside of the classroom as much as I can.

You can, too. And you’ll do just fine.

*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.
Ryan Bolton

Ryan Bolton

Ryan Bolton is the Director of Communications (aka. Guy That Plays With Words) at Student Life Network. He has a beard that can nest a family of sparrows. And a dog—Hank—that has a slight attitude problem.