College Choice: Is a move to third level education the right decision for you?

If you just drift into a course, you may end up dropping out

A decision to spend three to five years of your life studying full time at college requires
a very high level of both personal and financial commitment.

Prospective students don’t often reflect on the scale of the financial sacrifice parents have to make to fund their third-level studies, quite apart from cost to the taxpayer who contributes more than €1 billion each year to fund our third-level sector.

So before you make the commitment to go to college in September, ask yourself why you are doing this. If your choice of course is nursing, dentistry, primary school teaching etc, the answer is relatively straightforward – you have selected a particular occupation to launch you on to your career path of life.

If, on the other hand, you have no idea in what career area you want to eventually work and if are applying for one of the broad degree fields of arts, science, business etc simply because you enjoy those subjects in school, or because you believe your chosen course is within your points scoring range, then it might be useful to ask yourself what are you looking for from your commitment of the next three to five years of your life.


A recent report by the Higher Education Authority indicates that 40-50 per cent of arts, humanities, social science, business, law,
science and maths honours bachelors 2012 graduates
are in employment nine months after graduation,
and that only 31 per cent of arts and humanities students consider their degree relevant to the job they secured
during their first year out of college.

Is that to suggest that the vast majority of students who select broad-ranging general degrees are wasting their time – and their parents and the taxpayers’ money?

Vocational preparation
If you are looking at your prospective third-level education in a strictly vocational sense, that answer could well be yes, but the third-level sector, universities in particular, are not, nor would they want to be identified as, institutions whose purpose is vocational
preparation in the occupational sense.

They see their role as assisting students to move from the controlled educational structure of second level to a world of self-directed learning where students come to know themselves and to develop their talents and skills, to use them in their life’s career journey.

In moving away from
the rigid world of school uniforms and rules and regulations
that govern our school
system into the world of third-level education, students, hopefully, develop the ability to think independently and clearly, to solve a range
of problems thrown up by their academic studies and their extracurricular college life.

Through their course work and its presentation to tutors and fellow students, they learn to communicate their ideas clearly and to defend them, arguing their point of view with their lecturers and fellow students.

Studying politics, economics and philosophy in UCD in the 1970s, I learned as much as a students union officer, and from arguing my points of view in the bearpit of the Literary and Historical Society on a Friday night, as I did in my academic studies.

Going to college and studying, in the majority of general faculties, is in essence more about personal development than vocational training.

If your college of choice does its job properly, you will emerge at the end of the process as a more tolerant, insightful, broad-minded, reflective, clear-thinking member of society, who can apply these qualities and skills in a wide variety of career roles during your working life.

To an employer you should offer creativity, logical thinking and an ability to undertake a complex task and successfully complete it using the range of skills developed during your undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

Relevance of degree
The 69 per cent of 2012 arts graduates who cannot see the relevance of their degree to their first job after graduation need to ask themselves whether the basket of skills they now use in their daily working life was formed during their college years, or could they have got a similar job directly from school.

Even if they could have, will their career progression over the next 10 years be more rapid given their current skills than if they had gone directly into the labour force after their Leaving Cert?

Before you decide to apply for a college place next September, ask yourself why you are doing this and what are your expectations of the entire process.

If you are clear in your own mind what college has to offer you and if you select your course choices with this level of awareness, you are far more likely to derive the maximum possible benefit from your study.

If, on the other hand, you just drift into a college course without clarifying your goals and expectations, you may become very disillusioned
and drop out of your

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times