many students choose post-secondary programs

It’s easy to select an inappropriate program if you’re choosing in the dark
David Lawson
For the first 25 years of my professional life, I spent much of my time meeting with university
students to explore their academic goals, career aspirations and performance in the classroom.
Most of them had come to post-secondary education after achieving great success in high school
and entered university with the reasonable expectation that future results would mirror the past.
Sadly, far too often this was not the case. Where students had been led to believe that they might
drop a few percent points as they adjusted to new educational environments and ways to learn, they
found their academic average declining precipitously, much to their chagrin and that of their
families. Many failed or were placed on academic probation.
In some cases, disappointing performance is understandable and even well earned. Immaturity,
lack of commitment, too much partying and not enough school work, and failure to develop effective
strategies for managing large amounts of work independently lead to predictable underperformance.
Student success can also be undermined by an unwillingness or inability to take advantage of the
resources available to help students address academic problems and the loss from a much valued
support system and resulting loneliness and isolation. Many students respond to such challenges
but often too little and too late to overcome initial distress.
But for far too many students, the issues with which they grapple are much more fundamental.
They simply do not like the programs in which they are enrolled. The way that learning takes place
does not fit their learning styles. Sitting alone in libraries for 8 hours a day doesn’t work for them
and memorizing and reproducing large volumes of minutiae seems pointless.
Lots of students discover they simply aren’t interested in their courses or programs. The chemistry
course they loved in high school seems virtually unrelated to what is being introduced in Chemistry
101; they discover their enjoyment, and perhaps a lot of their success, had much to do with their
instructors and the intimate quality of the instruction from which they benefited.
In my experience, the choice of academic programs and schools for post-secondary education is
vital yet made by increasingly younger students, often guided by very limited information upon
which to base their decisions. Students pick in the dark and end up places they would never have
gone if their choices had been grounded in reliable data and insights.
If you don’t know where you’re going and why, you’ll typically end up somewhere else, not just in
school but in any area of endeavour. Students who lack clear academic and career goals rely upon
the only assistance available – media, family, friends and teachers. And well intentioned as all
these sources of guidance may be, they tend to trust conventional wisdom.
Science, math, information technology, biotechnology, business, engineering; how can you go
wrong? That’s where the opportunities lie. That’s what our society values and you should as well.
Everyone knows this to be true. It’s broadcast over the air waves, communicated in the classroom
and trumpeted by parents and peers. How can you resist? Why would you want to?
But there is a very large problem with much conventional wisdom. It simply ignores the uniqueness
and needs of the individual student. It relies upon what everyone takes for granted; it homogenizes
and compresses at the expense of valuing what is special and particular. And it can lead to some
devastating outcomes for real people as they move forward with their learning.
Not everyone experiences poor outcomes when they enter post-secondary education without
concrete goals and plans. Intuition and life experience direct some students to science, business,
engineering and health sciences in a reliable and trustworthy fashion and they do just fine.
But, for the vast majority of students, thoughtfully exploring their interests, strengths, values and
accomplishments provides the firm foundation upon which educational achievement can confidently
rest. This may seem a tougher road to travel but it leads surely to a more secure destination, at
much lower cost.
David Lawson is a career counsellor with Career Solutions in Burlington specializing in helping
secondary and post-secondary students and adults manage educational and career planning
challenges. He can be reached at [email protected] or