University: Not a Pre-Req for Adulthood Anymore

09/16/2012 12:08 EDT | Updated 11/13/2012 05:12 EST

Until very recently it was thought that universities were virtually a prerequisite to becoming an adult. They would lead to an ennobling education and, practically speaking, open up a higher pay gradient for the rest of your career. Of course this is still the case at great schools in elite programs or with great teachers in mediocre schools, but it cannot be taken for granted that simply university is good.

Kate Lunau in a recent Maclean's article looked at how university students' mental health is seriously at risk. The October cover story of The Walrus (currently unavailable online) is entitled, "Unemployed, Unhappy, and Drowning in Debt." This supports what I have seen to be the case. For many, university's assumed value is no more than a collective hallucination.

Students enter university determined to drink, experiment with drugs (or at least use them more), and copulate. They enter huge lecture halls where tenured profs who resent the drudgery of entry level survey courses speak on subjects the students don't care about, that they only picked because it sounded easy. Perhaps sociology. If a professor or T.A. is sought during their office hours, it's not for intellectual exchange but to pout over grades. They don't necessarily learn for four years, they endure.

The academic requirements have been unforgivably watered down for the sake of the university's economic interest. A degree is mostly a commodity, and the marketplace is uninterested in preserving its actual worth. Schools lower their standards to gain greater admittance, and there is greater reluctance to fail brutal students. The golden ratio for many students involves getting a passing grade while doing as little of the reading as possible. They might blatantly cheat on exams and pay people to write their papers. This is ubiquitous, not rare.

Just today the National Post had a story about unemployed University professors writing student papers. Seriously. In any case, those who go on to work after graduation mostly don't use anything they've learned in their studies during their job. To quote the Walrus article, "Most university students get jobs, but more than a third accept jobs that require no post-secondary qualifications...Thus, universities can and do claim that their graduates find jobs, even while graduates complain that their career hopes are dashed."

University gives you a satisfactory answer to tell relatives at family dinners who inquire, "what are you doing with your life?" It has a corny prestige leftover from when university meant more, but it's mostly a brutally expensive, hedonistic way to put off becoming an adult by four years. People are realizing this, but while this delusion can still be invoked by schools and government officials without sounding like outright charlatans, tuition goes up, and programs are lengthened and broadened into subdivisions encouraging more certification.

I was in teacher's college for a year (having never been to OISE, Dante stopped short). Teachers and students knew the classes were largely useless, that you only learned during the teaching practicum outside class. In 08-09 my program took on 800 "teacher candidates" knowing full well there weren't even jobs for a quarter of them. In response, they considered doubling the length of the program (and tuition). Teacher candidates and practising teachers are encouraged to take more and more supplementary courses to become greater experts on subjects like gym. It's a never ending, foolproof business plan other industries exploit: pay us X amount of money so that afterwards you'll make X + Y.

It doesn't matter how qualified you actually are or aren't if you don't have certification. It's like under-aged kids getting into bars because the bouncer needs to see the blatantly forged Michigan ID so he can say he saw something in case a bureaucrat inspector comes in. I'd rather hire someone who smartly avoids tuition and read great, free books from the library for four years, or a 22-year-old with four years of working experience. But often these poor souls are like adults the bouncer can't let into the bar because they don't have a formally issued ID. Meanwhile the 17-year-old from Michigan gets in instead, laughing his ass off. This is a racket.

A generation of students and graduates are financially crippled with student debt, remain under or unemployed, and they literally have mental issues. And the so-called responsible people keep applauding! University is not for everyone, and society should come to terms with that.

If university makes sense for you, go ahead. I loved my time at Dalhousie and I'd change nothing, but there should no longer be an unthinking premium placed on university, and there shouldn't be a stigma placed on kids who feel it isn't for them. In fact, the job market agrees. The Walrus reported that only 2 per cent of parents want their kids to get a trade certificate. Becoming a plumber is a great thing. Hopefully soon, the university delusion and the corny prestige it bestows will wear off for good.