Is an expensive education worth the investment?

Dr. Donna Kakonge is a highly-educated teacher, coach, mentor and author.
Dr. Donna Kakonge is a highly-educated teacher, coach, mentor and author.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a seminar for aspiring writers at Spadina Library in downtown Toronto. The guest speaker was Dr. Donna Kakonge, author of 66 books. One of the audience members, a teacher with a Master’s Degree asked if it was recommended that she obtain additional education in order to further her writing ambitions. With a degree in journalism from Carleton University, a Master’s Degree from Concordia University, the University of London International Programmes Bachelor of Laws, an All But “approved” Dissertation (ABD) with the OISE | University of Toronto in Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Development, Kakonge was particularly well-qualified to answer the question and her definitive answer was “no”.

We later had an interesting discussion about the payback for the cost of education. Kakonge’s personal experience is particularly relevant because she is far more educated that most people and recognizes the veiled marketing strategies employed by educational institutions to sell their product. Education definitely has value but it is also a business that needs to sustain itself. The past several decades have seen a remarkable growth in the level of education achieved by young people as well as working adults seeking to enhance their credentials.

debtFinancial advisor Suze Orman consistently discourages people from dipping into their retirement fund or borrowing money to finance their children’s education suggesting students take more responsibility for the cost. I agree with Kakonge that there comes a point where further education will not guarantee a better job. There are even employers who regard too much education as being out of touch with the realities of the business world. While this may not be the case when working in academia, it should be considered before borrowing tens of thousands of dollars for further education.

In his latest book, David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell takes this a step further and suggests that expensive Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale are possibly not worth the investment. Students who were top achievers in their local schools may become discouraged to find they are no longer top of their class in a prestige university teaching the crème de la crème. An excellent education can be achieved at a less expensive university.

As someone who often hired graduates when I was still working, I would often rely on interpersonal skills ahead of high marks in the hiring process. In fact, college graduates often had a better grasp of the working world than university graduates and frequently were the better choice. The bottom line is education alone is not the sole determinant in the success of the individual in the working world. Practical learning really begins on the job and personal skills and aptitudes are extremely important. Do the simple math and make your decision about whether to get that big student loan based on sound judgement about your return on investment. Education is also a business that needs to be fed. If you can afford it and like the work, then go for it.

On the other hand, do not let insufficient financial backing or lack of interest in education leave you feeling like a non-achiever. Some very successful people never finished college or university. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Peter Mansbridge, Rick Mercer and Diane Francis are examples of people who succeeded on their own merits. They worked hard and over the years built up their experience and credentials to achieve truly admirable levels of success in their fields.

When I retired I was Marketing Manager for an international corporation with annual sales in excess of $2 billion, a job that theoretically should have been held by someone with a minimum of a marketing degree and probably an MBA. I completed high school, took a few evening college courses and business seminars and created my own career by doing a variety of crappy jobs until I got into something I enjoyed doing, had an aptitude for and was given the chance by a very liberal employer to run with it. I’m a huge believer in learning on the job but you have to start somewhere and that’s never at or anywhere near the top. You have to earn your stripes by doing all kinds of less-than-desirable jobs to learn the basics such as showing up on time, doing your best regardless of the task, exceeding expectations, and learning about money management, deadlines and other basic job requirements.

Being too focused on one career goal from a young age can often result in young people not taking advantage of unplanned-for tangential employment opportunities that could grow into something wonderful. Engineers, lawyers and Chartered Accountants for example have the advantage of being marketable in professions other than their professional designation. When we Baby Boomers finished school, very few of us thought in terms of a career. We simply got a job and que sera sera. Many of us lucked into businesses such as advertising, construction, food services, trade work or product sales that we were totally untrained and unprepared for but we did our best, found a niche we liked and ultimately did well for ourselves. I’ll be writing more about this in future posts.

For a further perspective on the issue, read this recent piece in The Globe and Mail by Mark Kingwell, Professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.




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8 years ago

Hello. magnificent job. I did not imagine this. This is a excellent story.

8 years ago

Hello! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok.
I’m absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.