What if universities imposed a minimum age for enrollment? It came up over drinks with some friends, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The idea was that at 18 years of age, one has little to no life experience, and might make a better, more fulfilling decision about education by taking a few years after high school to work, travel, and grow up.
Jessica*, a 23-year old student at the University of Calgary, is living the consequences of attending university before she was ready. “What else do you do after high school? In grade 11 you start getting asked where you’re going to university, and so it’s just ingrained. You’re supposed to go,” she says. Jessica applied for university several months before she graduated high school, and, being an honour student, was accepted without any complications. “I was going to be a teacher,” she says. “By the end of my first year, I was pretty sure [being] a teacher was exactly the opposite of what I wanted to spend my life doing.”
That summer she worked as a waitress at a small pub close to her home, then went back to university, this time changing her major to English. “I loved to read, and in high school I was good at writing essays, so it seemed like it would suit me.” Between her first and second year as an English major, Jessica spent the summer travelling Europe, a generous gift from her parents. “It was cool, I’d never seen the world before.” But after her third year of university, she again changed her major.
“I was 21, living on my own, supporting myself, and I thought, ‘how is an English degree going to pay bills?'”
Now pursuing a psychology degree, Jessica thinks she has found her fit. “It feels right,” she says. “And I can establish a career with it.” Jessica is halfway through her second year of psychology, which translates to halfway through her fifth year of university. “I’m in so much debt. I didn’t have any savings before I started university, so I took out student loans. I should be graduated by now. But I’ve got two more years after this.”
I asked Jessica if she thought things could have been different for her, if she had waited until she was 21 before she started university. “I always wanted to go to university. I don’t thinking taking time off would have changed that. But I could have worked first and maybe I could have paid for some school myself. At 18, I was so naïve. Maybe if I had waited I would have been able to stick to one major.”
Looking back at my 19-year old self when I started university, I wonder what would have happened had I waited a few more years. I know for sure that if I were to go back to school now, at 25, it would be a completely different experience. I’ve matured significantly (partly thanks to five years of university), and can’t help but wonder if I would have had a better educational experience as a slightly older student. The older I got, the more effort, energy, and thought I put into my schoolwork. And guess what? I learned more.
Jessica says she’s not an uncommon student. “There are lots of us. Lots of students change majors.” She’s pretty sure, though, she would have been better off waiting a few years to start. “You should come into your own before you go to university. How can you be expected to make such an important decision when you’re only 18?”
* name has been changed