The Real Costs For Post-Secondary Students That Lack Career Clarity

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Many people still think that it’s okay for students to be unsure or lack career clarity when attending post-secondary education. I have heard many parents communicate this advice, and even some academic institutions support it. For instance, on a top Canadian university website there is a statement to students, “No one expects you to have your whole life mapped out when you apply to university. There are so many universities and choices. You may discover new programs after you apply or even once you get to university. It’s okay to change what you’d like to study. Many students do.”

There are also post-secondary educators that provide similar advice. In a Macleans article (December 3, 2018), Aritha van Herk,a professor from the department of English at the University of Calgary stated, “Explore. Give your curiosity free rein. Universities are programmatically structured now, but don’t let the requirements of your program confine you. If you want to take astronomy and your English degree tells you that you can’t take any more options, resist and figure out a way to do both. It is less important to complete a degree than to discover your fascinations, which will follow you through life.” Really? Is it not that important that a student does not complete his or her degree?

A lot of students have difficulties choosing academic programs, lacking direction. For this reason, changing majors is a very common occurrence for many post-secondary students, especially in university settings. Even I changed my majors when I attended University. I would argue that it is such a common occurrence that many individuals don’t realize the real consequences of making this critical decision. As the opening quotation mentions, students that change majors are part of the norm. Do not misunderstand me, I completely support the idea of exploration. Indeed, exploration is at the heart to a successful career development process. However, I believe that gaining greater clarity about post-secondary education needs to be a priority because academic uncertainty is extremely costly. In this blog, I want to look at facts surrounding academic decision making, the true costs of switching majors and some of the benefits of using career development strategies.

There are many career development strategies that can be effectively used to reduce doubt and uncertainty, helping to enhance academic decision making. My intention is to open a dialogue about the true need for career development, as way of reducing uncertainty and gaining clarity. More importantly, it is also a way of avoiding major unforeseen costs.

Percentage of Students Changing Majors

First, let’s look at some cold hard facts when students change majors. Within Canada, there are not very clear statistics on the number of students changing their majors. However, in the United States the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), conducted a longitudinal study in 2011 to 2012. The study found that 33 percent of students that were pursuing a bachelor’s degree and 28 percent of students within associate degree programs had changed their major at least once. The survey also found that about 1 in 10 had changed majors twice.

Relevance of Academic Studies to Work

Additional research involved university students from a major Canadian survey completed for 2020, the Ontario University Graduate Survey. In this study, researchers examined two key factors that were related to graduate job results. The first factor was the skills students had developed from their program. The second factor was the subject matter knowledge they acquired. With regards to the skills that university students had developed in relation to their work, 53% of students stated that they were “closely related”, 34% recorded that they were “somewhat related” and 13% noted that they were “not related at all”. In relation to the subject matter, 46% of students stated that the knowledge gained was “closely related” to their work, 30% indicated that it was “somewhat related” and 24% recorded it was “not related at all”. 

In reviewing the percentages, only about 50% of the students indicated that both their skills and subject matter were closely related to their work upon graduation. Overall, it’s clear that there are a vast number of students do not employ a significant level of skills and knowledge in the work that they do. Many students do not maximize their education, with regards to the future careers they pursue.

The Real Costs of Education

When attending college or university there are significant costs that go along with this major life decision. Let’s look at these costs. According to Statistics Canada, a typical university Canadian student enrolled full-time in an undergraduate program will pay, on average, $6,693 in tuition. This was for the 2021/2022 academic year. Of course, tuition will depend on the area of study, increasing in cost for most STEM and professional degrees. If a student is in residence, the annual cost can be even higher.

Associated with the costs of going to university is the large number of students having significant student debt. Statistics Canada reports that for the 2015 year, 64% of the graduates who graduated with student debt still had an outstanding debt after three years. Among university programs, graduates with a bachelor’s degree had a median debt of $20,000. Graduates in professional programs were three times higher with a median debt of $60,300

Costs and Consequences

Let’s quickly sum up the facts, to evaluate the real costs for a student’s lack of career clarity and uncertainty. First, a significant percentage of students will change their majors, up to a third. Second, only about 50% of the students indicate that their skills and subject matter are closely related to their work upon graduation. So, many graduating students will not be maximizing their educational field of study to their future careers. Third, with the average cost for a year’s tuition for university being approximately $6,700, having to take any additional years to complete a program is an extraneous and unnecessary cost. Fourth, if students decide to change majors the courses already completed may not be relevant to the new major. Students may not be able to transfer all their credits, having to pay for any additional credits, increasing costs. Furthermore, this will also extend the date of graduation. Fifth, if students extend their graduation date, they will have to pay for additional courses. In this situation, they will also be losing employment income, because they have not started their career. Last, when students extend the date of graduation, the time required to pay off any outstanding student debt becomes longer.  

Benefits of Using Career Development Strategies

I hope that a review of these fact and numbers, provides confirmation that switching academic majors has significant costs and consequences. Even though many students choose to switch majors, it should not be taken lightly. As I have discussed making the wrong decision is very costly. However, is there a way to reduce the chance of having to switch majors? There have been multiple research studies explicitly confirming the effectiveness of the career development process for supporting successful student decision making.

There are many advantages for students to undergo a successful career development process. First, students gain self-awareness. Being self-aware forces a person to look at themselves more objectively. Examining strengths, weaknesses, personality traits and values assists in more effectively exploring career directions and opportunities. Second, it provides a way for students to create career goals, which supports the decision-making process. When students have goals that they want to achieve, it helps them plan more effectively. Third, it establishes a long-term vision. Vision also supports the decision-making process, assisting them to prioritize what is truly important in their career. Finally, a sound career strategy allows students to better explore the labour market. Today’s labour market is expansive and endlessly changing. Students need to understand labour market trends, impacts and disruptions. With the rising costs of today’s education and the continually changing labour market, an effective career process can help a student not only avoid getting into the wrong career but provide a successful career foundation. The process can  help a student have a deeper understanding of who they are and what they truly want from their career.

Don’t Stop Here

More To Explore

Avoiding Career Change Regret

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Are Career Assessments Actually Useful?

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