Degrees aren’t the answer to everything

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A long awaited letter arrived in 2002 that had had me watching the mailbox like a hawk for weeks: my academic record from RMIT for the second half of that year. I’d been watching the mailbox because I knew it would contain only one thing - a whole bunch of ‘F’ - and I would immediately have to burn it.

Yes, you are currently reading the demented scribblings of a professional (award-winning!) journalist what dropped out of journalism school.

Well, Professional Writing & Editing, and the dropout/fail was due to an administrative communication breakdown that meant my planned deferral ended up on paper as little more than semester-long truancy, but still, it was my second uni cockup in three years (I deferred a BA in Fashion Design and never returned), and it took me about a decade to finally feel ok about it all.

See, despite all that I’ve done, and the career I’ve managed to carve out, the spectre of being an unqualified drop-out has long haunted me.

This haunting is, I’m well aware, mostly irrational, because in truth, had I clocked the BA in Fashion Design, it would have guaranteed little for me save for a possible future academic position, and likewise, the Diploma in Professional Writing & Editing would have been little more than a nice jumble of letters to put on my business card. You don’t need a degree to be a designer, and the ability to write well is arguably a more compelling attribute as a journalist than the ability to secure a degree.

And yet, why did I - and why do many others in similar situations - feel such a deep sense of shame at being “unqualified” for so long?

It needn’t be said that degrees aren’t the answer to everything (no smartarses in the comments mentioning the obvious exceptions like medicine and law, please), and perhaps anticipating the needs of dropouts and failures, the internet is teeming with “feel better about your future prospects” type content such as 10 Very Successful People Without A College Degree (Richard Branson! Will Smith! Some other dudes!) and Wikipedia’s handy List Of College Dropout Billionaires (more dudes!). 

Additionally, that lack of a “piece of paper” isn’t an intellectual death sentence (as my family is fond of saying whenever I mope about my lack of a degree, “look at Phillip Adams!!”), or at least it doesn’t need to be. Once libraries ceased to be reminders of my abandoned tertiary education, they became founts of knowledge once more, and I read about Freud, European witchcraft, cookery in the Middle Ages... learning for the sake of learning, which never seemed to be on the cards when I was actually in a place of (institutionalised) learning. 

The further I get from my aborted attempt at further education, the more I wonder about the model we push upon kids in Australia. At my high school, we were expected to know what our VCE subjects would be, more or less, by Year 9, and since VCE subjects are the conduit to whatever tertiary education you end up doing, that effectively means we expect 14 and 15 year olds to know “what they want to be when they grew up”. The decision to study fashion came about because I liked drawing glamorous evening gowns; it wasn’t until much later (this year, really) that I realised it was costume design that I was interested in. How could 14.5-year-old-Me have worked that out? I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, other than that now, at 31, I know that I have 30-40 years to work it out!

As part of my uni dropout rehab, I have also realised the value in short-form further education, something I once pooh-poohed in my desperation to be a real, proper, university-educated academic, even as I knew tertiary ed’s grip on me was slipping. I’ve studied millinery at the CAE, leatherworking at masterclasses in Wyoming, and am this week learning about textile effects for costume design at Central Saint Martins in a pilgrimage of sorts to where my heroes Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan studied.

McQueen and Chalayan may well have earned their degrees, but at least now, 11 years after I lost the chance to get mine, I feel no shame in walking into their hallowed halls of education to study for five days before returning to my qualification-free existence.

After all, as Captain Edmund Blackadder so sagely put it, “[I] am a fully rounded human being with a degree from the university of life, a diploma from the school of hard knocks, and three gold stars from the kindergarten of getting the shit kicked out of me.”

 

36 comments so far

  • Degrees may not be the answer to everything but on average they sure do help both in terms of earnings and actually having a job. Using US figures (http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p70-129.pdf) median monthly earnings for the holder of a bechelor's degree are $4,355 vs $2,550 for high school graduates. The July 2012 unemployment rate for those aged 25 or older with a bachelors degee or higher is 3.8% vs 6.1% for those aged 25 overall. Stay in school...

    Commenter
    Hurrow
    Date and time
    August 21, 2013, 9:35AM
    • Sadly this says more about the minimum expectations of businesses when it comes to possessing a degree than it does about a university degree actually providing you with the expertise to perform higher paying jobs.

      I definitely don't disagree with the 'stay in school' advice, though. While a degree is not necessarily an accurate measurement of how well you would perform in a job, not having one is a major risk to ever being offered an opportunity to prove yourself in the first place.

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      August 21, 2013, 1:58PM
    • I think many businesses use it as a selection filter, certainly many university degreees contain very little in the way of education or training for the role you will actually do. However if someone has put in the 3 or 4 years required for a degree then you at least know that they probably learned something and definitely had enough dedication to stick to it. Hopefully those traits will carry over to the actual job and at least some of the knowledge gained will be useful as well. It's a long way from being perfect but it's better than nothing.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      August 21, 2013, 6:05PM
  • I completely agree that you don't need a degree for many professions. I think what's more important is having experiences that set you up for your life and help you progress down whatever career path you take.

    In many cases, university is a good way to get there. My experience at uni was a fantastic way to learn more about the world, test myself, interact with a wide range of people and figure out what I do and don't like working on.

    But you can get all those experiences outside of university as well (which it sounds like you have, and more). Whether you go to uni and get a degree or do your own thing outside of educational institutions, it's all learning and life experience.

    Commenter
    AmyBG
    Date and time
    August 21, 2013, 11:06AM
    • Actually a degree is extemely important to enter a profession. Professions are those occupations that require formal university training to be accepted by the regulatory body that provides admission to practice in said profession eg doctors, lawyers, accountants etc.

      Unless you are at uni doing a degree that will lead to a professional vocation you are most likely wasting your time: http://www.cracked.com/blog/the-question-youre-not-asking-should-you-go-to-college/

      However, without the bit of paper you're not going to fare very well against people with a bit of paper.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      August 21, 2013, 10:51PM
    • Bender you sound like one of those university students so caught up in semantics that the philosophy and meaning of a message is lost on you. I suggest you look outside of your own interpretations if you want to engage in meaningful discussions in the future.

      Commenter
      AmyBG
      Date and time
      August 22, 2013, 10:40AM
    • "Professions are those occupations that require formal university training to be accepted by the regulatory body that provides admission to practice in said profession eg doctors, lawyers, accountants etc"
      All that really indicates is that formal university training is a pre-requisite because a group of people at one point in time made it a pre-requisite.
      There is nothing to say they couldn't have just as readily made the pre-requisite more closely resemble a trade apprenticeship, where they pay a minimum wage for on the job training, with theory work required to be done in your own time, to be tested on at regular intervals.

      These formal qualifications are vital primarily because the current system has made them so.

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      August 22, 2013, 11:08AM
  • Clem, I also clearly remember being 14 years old and having a controlled tantrum at the dinner table about the fact that I had to choose electives, which would then determine my VCE subjects, which would lead to a degree which would (I assumed) lead to the REST OF MY LIFE. It's a disproportionate amount of pressure to put on a teenager who's also figuring out puberty.

    While I don't regret my choices, I do wish someone had told me back then that learning is something you do forever, and not to take it all so seriously!

    Commenter
    Jeanette
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    August 21, 2013, 11:13AM
    • I am a lot older than you. I also failed to complete my education despite being intellectually gifted. It was a foolish decision which never resolved itself. Stop rationalising and go back and do it part time. You won't regret it.

      Commenter
      WisdomWith Age
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      August 21, 2013, 5:35PM
      • Agree. I've had lots of great jobs but feel embarrassed that I never completed a degree, especially when I was always a top student. In my forties I am studying part-time to get one now.

        Commenter
        Veronica
        Date and time
        August 22, 2013, 8:30AM

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