It’s a general expectation for high school students to prepare for in their years leading up to graduation, and even with the emergence and push for vocational schools, it’s still an eminent problem in our society. I’m talking about the push to pursue a university degree immediately after high school, with the connotation that not planning to pursue one entirely will result in poor life outcomes and harsh scrutiny.
The American expectation of going to college, from my perspective
From your time entering elementary school up to the time you graduate, you are constantly pressured to do well because your career, future, life as a whole depends on it. It’s drilled into you every day. You are expected to at least do decently well, get accepted at a good university, and work your way through 4 years after high school to get a degree.
The conversation seems to go:
What will your degree be in? If you don’t know, that’s ok, the general expectation is you attend university immediately after anyway.
You’re not ready? You don’t know what you’re doing or need to work and save money? Too bad, a lot of universities won’t consider you if you take a gap year, let alone more than one after high school, and once you get much older than that, it will be too late.
Don’t have the money? Apply for as many scholarships as you can, and if you still can’t pay the rest, take out loans and spend a considerable amount of your future paying them when you may or may not have a job relating to your degree. You may well be paying them years after your graduation and not have a job.
Feeling lost? A lot of American students are right now, too.
My higher education experience as a student
I’m not your typical university student. In my years at school as a child and teenager, I felt I was not cut out for school, but it turned out higher education was structured entirely differently. I always assumed I would struggle, fail, and become a college drop-out when I was younger. It scared me so much it was one of the reasons I took a gap year after high school and invested myself in dog grooming.
I started attending Ohio University the following year and fell in love with science. I immersed myself in the material, I felt like I’d finally found my calling. I really got to, “nerd-out,” and I started running into people that shared my niche interests with biology. People that I could talk to about daily life over dissections, others that would join me for hikes and who’d get equally excited when spotting an interesting beetle or some gnarly fungus, people who just loved nature as much as me.
I found my people, and I’m really happy I did. With that, I’ve found my fear and distaste for test-taking has dwindled, and I’ve gotten as involved as I can with the things I enjoy and want to learn how to do better wherever I go. Science needs passionate, curious people that are excited to devote themselves to their work.
Unfortunately, schools in the U.S. force a lot of struggling teens and young adults into a university career that they don’t want, and subsequently into jobs that require more than they’d be prepared to or want to give. If they are skilled in STEM, they’re expected to get a B.S. and then a Ph.D., when maybe they’d be happier doing something else. Being good at a task is completely different from enjoying it and wanting to pursue it. The educational system in the U.S. forces many unknowing people onto a career path they are not interested in and often cannot complete; while making people like me, who struggled a lot in high school, assume they’ll be a failure in college.
What does this have to do with my study abroad experience in Australia?
I opened with this because I believed it was important to mention in the context of something I’ve noticed again and again since I arrived in Australia. Post-graduation expectations are extremely different. One of the first things I noticed at James Cook University in Townsville was the fact that many of the students were older than the traditionally-aged U.S. college student. Many people had waited a few years after high school to attend college, some had never had gone to college, and some were coming back for a different degree, even parents.
Overall, I got the impression that people at university in Australia attend because they want to, and it’s evidenced by me every day through simple observations like high, non-obligatory class attendance in lectures.
There seems to be less of a stigma on the choice to not get a higher education, and I’ve gotten the impression it is more frowned upon here to be attending university without an idea of what you want to do with your future. The whole concept of someone entering a university, having no idea what they want to do, and taking a few years to, “figure it out” is pretty foreign, as well as the whole idea of getting a degree that doesn’t guarantee a job.
From degree to career, a different view of higher education in Australia
One time during class, my sociology professor made a joke that really stuck with me because of its crushing reality back home. He mentioned how you wouldn’t see university students in Australia working at a chicken farm after they graduate, to which there were chuckles throughout the lecture hall. Most graduates here, from what I’ve heard, get jobs in their major straight out of graduation, and the idea that someone wouldn’t defeats the whole purpose. It’s less of a “dreamer” ideal and more about achieving a focused career goal.
Degrees don’t take as long to get in Australia, (most students are in three-year programs, as opposed to the popular four-year programs in the U.S. for bachelors degrees,) which I think is largely because programs are so focused. General Education courses are pretty much unheard of, and even many classes I have to take that are for my biological science major are a stretch here, such as the two-year chemistry requirement.
Essentially, in Australia, the programs work more to get you to a specific career goal, rather than to explore around and find something you like. There are trade-offs with this, of course, such as the requirement to basically start over if you change your focus of study, but the same also often happens in U.S. universities despite the wide range of requirements for degrees.
I’ve just been taken aback since day one in Australia at how much more accessible universities here seemed to be for non-traditionally aged prospective students, and it made me quite happy to see it. I actually had a lovely conversation with a taxi driver who had returned to James Cook University after having two children to study music performance. The more open atmosphere, in general, makes it easier for people, including parents, to come back for higher education, and I think it’s just wonderful.