“So you’re studying at Algonquin?” asked the woman next to me, starting the small talk. It was time for a lunch break at a professional development seminar I was attending.
“Yep, for Professional Writing,” I told her. But, as usual, I struggled to articulate what “professional writing” is when the man across the table asked.
“Well, we do some creative writing, but it’s essentially writing for business, except not technical writing,” I trailed off as they smiled politely, clearly still somewhat uncertain. I wondered if they were thinking that a college program about writing is stupid.
“I also did a Bachelor’s degree at the University of Ottawa for accounting.” This clicked.
“Oh, cool, so did I! Although a few years ago now,” laughed the man and the woman nodded in understanding. “I hated it though,” he continued, “I only did it as a favour to my dad and when I was done, I went straight to film school!”
We all laughed. And I felt better for mentioning the accounting, the university degree.
It always sounded more impressive to say that, not only am I in college, but I also have a bachelor’s degree. A Bachelor of Commerce with Specialization in Accounting, to be precise. People tend to view business degrees as practical and useful. No one ever questions your job prospects in the field of commerce. Those relating to things like English and literature always prompt the question: “What are you going to do with that degree?” It’s even worse when I say I am now in a program called Professional Writing, a specialty no one is very clear on the meaning of. The fact that it’s a college program doesn’t help either.
The debate in Canada about whether college or university is better in terms of future employment has been going on for years. There is some societal bias towards university as the more respectable choice, perhaps due its perceived loftier academic pursuits. And there is also the argument that college is more practical due to the idea that it teaches the hands-on skills desired by employers. No one seems to be able to come to an agreement about which is the better choice. It's also common for polytechs, apprenticeships, and direct entry into the workforce to be completely glossed over in favour of either college or university. Or, in my experience, more in favour of university.
At my high school, we were divided into two groups. The students in the “academic” classes were expected to go to university, and the students in the “applied” classes were expected to go to college, or worse, directly into the workforce. To put it bluntly, university was for the smart kids with ambition, and college was not. There was no cross-over. “Academic” students were not informed of the merits of college and “applied” students were not prepared for university.
A Statistics Canada study shows that graduates with bachelor’s degrees consistently earned higher salaries than those with college diplomas from 2005 to 2012. And yet a 2015 employer tracking study by George Brown College showed that employers were more likely to hire college graduates than university graduates that year. I’ve heard every side of it, from parents with the idea that university is the only acceptable option for their children, to the supposed cry for skilled workers to fill in the gaps in trades. With so many differing opinions flying around in clouds of bias, how are students supposed to figure out which is best for them?
In general, graduation from anything is met with admiration and congratulations. When I graduated from university, I did not have any feelings of pride. Instead, I felt immense relief. My GPA had been mediocre at best. I had discovered halfway through my second year that I was not very good at accounting, nor did I actually enjoy any aspect of it. But as a self-proclaimed “completionist” who didn’t want to be labelled a drop-out, I sucked it up and finished my degree. I did not go on to write the professional accounting exams. And so, after an expensive four-and-a-half-year struggle, I never did actually became an accountant.
Instead, I went to work as an accounting clerk, a job that barely requires even a college diploma. It was a crappy job with a crappy salary and no possibility of advancement. I absolutely hated it. But I stuck it out for almost two years because I did not know what else to do. I did not want to admit that I had wasted time, energy, and money on a nice piece of paper saying I had received a fancy title, Honours Bachelor of Commerce. No one wants to hear about someone wasting an opportunity like that. We consider it shameful if someone doesn’t finish a degree, but we consider it wasteful if someone does finish a degree and never uses it.
How many of us like to tell people about our post-secondary education? And how many of us like to do this even if we haven’t used our degrees? I’m always interested to hear what everyone I meet has studied in school and to see how it compares with what they’re doing now, particularly if they are well into their career. In 2014, Workopolis found that 73 per cent of people polled are working at jobs unrelated to their post-secondary degree. For some, the reason might be that they were unable to find a job in their field. For others, it may be that something else came along. For me, it’s that I didn’t like my chosen field.
So, like many others, I decided to go back to school. Maybe I would have better luck the second time around. I had a hard time deciding what exactly I would go back to school for, however. Having been brought up with the idea that college was less suitable than university, I wasn’t sure if it would help me to get a job. At the same time, I did not want to spend another four years getting a degree. Money doesn’t grow on trees and a lifetime is finite and all that. But I figured that since university had not gone particularly well, maybe I was not suited to it and would be better off at the college level. That actually turned out to be true, but not for the reasons I thought.
Back when I was in high school, I had no concept of what an accountant actually did. In fact, I had no concept of what anyone really did at a “real” job. I had no better idea of the vast range of jobs that existed than I did when I was a child and people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. The occupations that came to mind were always the obvious ones, like doctor, lawyer, fireman, or police officer. The kinds of things you see in picture books and on TV.
And, more importantly, at the age of 18, I didn’t have any idea of who I was. Answering a bunch of multiple-choice questions on a quiz in Civics and Careers class to determine your aptitudes and personality will only get you so far in life. In fact, it won’t get you anywhere if you don’t have a confident sense of self. Let’s be honest, who truly understands themselves and the world around them while they’re still in high school?
High school and adolescence tend to put us in a bubble, and only after we leave that bubble are we able to determine who we are and what we need and want. Unfortunately, it seems that the trend is to immediately push post-secondary education. I don’t remember anyone suggesting that taking a year off to figure my life out by travelling or working might be a good idea before committing to a post-secondary path. I figured my life out the expensive and time-consuming way, by getting one degree, working for a bit, and then going back for a second degree.
Entering college, I was under the impression that it would be easier than university. After one and a half years I can tell you it’s not. Nevertheless, I have found that I am thriving in college, way more than I ever did in university. Instead of trying to memorize endless material from lectures and textbooks and regurgitate it during exams, I am churning out writing assignments daily. And the more I write, the better I get. The smaller class size that comes along with my college program has meant more interaction with my peers and my instructors, further improving my work.
I had thought that university was too much for me, that I was not capable of doing well because I did not have the capacity to do so. But I have come to realize that success in post-secondary education is a combination of finding the right environment and choosing a program that interests you. Unfortunately, this is difficult, especially when you are still in high school with no concept of what the next level of schooling is like or what kind of work you enjoy doing. Finding the right path for yourself is made even more difficult if you have preconceived ideas about whether university is better than an apprenticeship program, or whether college is better than going right into the workplace.
I still make sure people know that while I am working towards a college diploma in a specialty that I love, professional writing, I also completed a university degree in business. I like people to know that I successfully finished a practical degree. But I’m trying to get better at explaining exactly how my current program is practical too, in a different way. Both options can result in a good, well-paying job. The difference is that one is a job I thought I wanted in high school, before I knew myself and the world very well, and one is a job I know I will enjoy because I know myself and I’ve had enough relevant life experience to make an informed decision.
Anna is an aspiring editor and writer with a background in accounting. She actually finds personal finance and the issue of financial literacy very interesting. She grew up on a hobby farm south of Ottawa and enjoys animals, reading, and the weird and wonderful world of the internet.