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Should Everyone Go To University?

Should Everyone Go To University?
Ridding ourselves of the belief that success comes from a four-year degree will allow those with vocational gifts to get the appropriate education they need to succeed in a field they will truly love. Photo by Blind Nomad.

In the current political climate, the polemics about university education have taken many forms.  “Everyone should go to university,” “a university education is useless and potentially dangerous,” “higher education costs too much for what it provides and few students are making significant advances in learning,” “we avoid higher education at our vocational peril,” and so on.

The recent debate between Rick Santorum and Barak Obama over the issue has, perhaps, crystalized some issues but it has also demonstrated the absurdity of our question.  Santorum accuses Obama of wanting everyone to go to university, where those students will be indoctrinated with liberal ideas.  Obama argues that he never said everyone should go to a four year university but that everyone should train for the job market of the future.  Why does this make our question absurd?  Because it is clear that a four year university level degree program is simply not a blanket solution to our labor problems, nor is it the demon some would make it out to be.

Having worked in a university setting for decades, I have observed the results of the assumption that you are a less than stellar citizen if you don’t have at least a bachelor’s degree.  Funded by doting parents or even by part time jobs, I see any number of “students” who are not coping with the requirements of standard university fare.  Why are they there?  Because they, or others in their environment, have bought into the notion that you will be a failure at life if you don’t have a four year degree on your wall.  A sad by-product of this kind of thinking, beyond the drop-out rates, is a general tendency to dumb down university requirements.

I am not saying that university education should be reserved for the elite few intelligent enough to succeed at it.  What I want to make clear is that there are many kinds of intelligence that need to be supported by the right kinds of education.  People with mechanical and technical gifts should not be in an environment that calls for them to succeed at subjects they find alien to the way they use their intelligence.  By telling everyone that a lack of a university diploma makes them second class, we are dishonoring a large number of our young people who would be well able to succeed in life if they could find the right educational home.

The growing number of community, technical, and vocational colleges is heartening, not because they  can provide a second class education for those who can’t afford or survive a real university, but because they provide opportunities for students to match their interests and abilities with the appropriate preparation for life.

Should everyone go to university?  No.  That’s absurd.  But it is not absurd because only a few students are smart enough and the rest will have to settle for something inferior.  It is absurd, because the question misses the point.  Education must be tailored to the minds and capabilities of those who need it.  One size does not fit all.  It never did.  There is no shame in technological or vocational education and their resulting careers.

The sooner we get over the notion that the only higher education worth having is university education, the better.

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