September marks the annual ritual as almost two million Canadians head to college and university, buying into the myth that in a few short years, they will be done their education and ready for that dream job and life. Many will be disappointed.
Few post-secondary students ask the hard question – "why am I going back to school?" Asking why is the first step in thinking bigger and thinking beyond the classroom.
For decades, society has adopted and promoted the narrative that education is a life stage defined by classrooms and textbooks. That life stage starts around the age of five and continues into young adulthood. In the post-secondary phase, students are asked to invest directly in their futures, choosing among trades, technology, business, engineering, science, or the arts. Regardless, this narrative tells young people that skills they develop during this life stage will set them up for the next 40-odd years until retirement into the golden years. The mythology that a post-secondary education is the key to a privileged life remains persuasive even as evidence mounts that a university degree is no longer the golden ticket that it once was.
Education is undoubtedly a critical investment at both a personal and societal level. But the focus on simply achieving a credential – a degree or diploma – is not only unhelpful, it's at the core of a major problem. Today 40 per cent of recent university graduates are underemployed, and governments are forced to write off hundreds of millions in student loans. It's time to question the value of that degree or diploma and to ask what needs to supplement it.
Our education system needs the same type of user-focused thinking that is disrupting many industries. In transportation, for example, the taxi industry had a long-standing monopoly. Uber and car-sharing companies blew up this paradigm by putting individuals in control as riders and drivers.
The traditional concept of education is facing a similar disruption. It isn't governments or post-secondary institutions that are driving disruption and innovation. In this case, it is students, individual educators and employers who are redefining education – one that is focusing on supporting and delivering each individual's unique goals.
Just like the taxi industry was challenged, the concept that education as a one-size-fits-all model, rooted in classrooms and exams, is being questioned. The knowledge a student acquires in that political science, marketing or welding course may be important, but it alone will not make that student valuable or unique. Rather, the student's value will emerge from a mosaic of experiences, including volunteering, internships, part-time jobs, travel, and a sampling from the almost endless array of innovative digital learning resources available on-demand. Furthermore, that learning should continue from age 18 to 78 or beyond, to keep skills relevant in a world that is changing faster than our education systems can.
The concept of education as a mosaic may empower some, while overwhelming others. Where should a young person start?
First, we all need to acknowledge that creating a great life isn't the responsibility of the government, the school, parents or teachers. It's our own responsibility. So, each of us needs to take control. We need to invest our time and money into the areas that will make each of us valuable, unique and excited every day.
To do this, we encourage students to view the years spent in college or university as if they were product designers tasked with developing a product (themselves) to launch into the world. What is unique about your product? What is it about yourself, beyond your courses and grades, that you will be proud to release to the world? You can start with the same questions every product designer asks:
- Who is your target customer (your future employer)?
- How many prospective employers have you met to better understand their needs?
- How will you be valuable to your employers?
- How will you be different from others?
- Are you excited about the skills and experiences you are building?
- How will you spend the next few years, inside and outside the classroom, designing and building this product?
When you reflect on these questions, you will think about the concept of "education" very differently. You will come to see that what makes you unique and valuable involves skills developed not only in a classroom, but through every other aspect of your life. This is your unique mosaic. Education isn't about a place, it's about a mindset and the life you choose to lead. You may need to reflect and rebalance the time and money you invest in different dimensions of your educational mosaic. Now is the time to go embrace your unique personal mosaic and build the product you want to launch into the world.
David J. Finch is an Associate Professor at Mount Royal University. Ray DePaul is the Director of Mount Royal University's Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.