Non-Traditional Pathways are the New Traditional

The simple, linear lifecycle of an individual, where they receive a K-12 education, achieve good grades, attend university, work in a stable job, and retire, is dying – impacted greatly by the availability of information at our fingertips as well as technology promoting self-research and guidance. The old cycle, even in its many variations, is often still referred to as ‘traditional’, yet reality today suggests the model is increasingly ‘non-traditional’.

Trillions of dollars of student debt globally, coupled with employer complaints that fresh graduates lack skills even for entry-level jobs, should make us question the value of the traditional education-to-employment model. With virtual courses, certification programmes, fully online degrees and instant access to global news and resources through the likes of Wikipedia and social media, use of the term ‘lifelong learning’ is simply stating the obvious.

My own non-traditional pathway was the best fit for my individual circumstances, allowing me to save money, gain additional credentials and kick-start my career. By not finishing a complete advanced high school diploma and instead attending a vocational college where tuition fees were half those of university, I managed to obtain an advanced diploma and an associate’s degree. And upon graduation, I articulated my credentials to a university with direct admittance into my third year, at the end of which I obtained a general bachelor’s of science degree.

With three credentials under my belt after four years of study, I was ahead of my peers by a year, and was not weighed down by student debt, as my costs were lower and offset by scholarships and part-time employment and internships. This is in contrast to many of my peers who took the traditional linear approach and are still trying to find their way, largely because they did not allow for flexibility, transferrable skills and versatility.

I watched many of my friends struggle to find jobs (even in a similar field to mine), and I put this down to more diversified educational background being considered more valuable to employers. After five years of work, my employer approved my request for a one-year leave of absence and paid half the costs of my Master’s degree.

Of course, I am not saying this approach works for everyone. It’s great if you know your path – but have you fully explored your options? Will it keep you relevant, save you money, and make you happy and give you a sense of fulfilment? For those still at school, who are unsure about what they want to be or do when they grow up, I would say don’t worry, because most people twice as old still aren’t sure. It’s not just about alternative paths; it’s about due diligence to ensure you avoid having to make a U-turn later in life.

The importance and benefits of attaining a post-secondary degree immediately after high school, as in the linear approach, is not merely the degree itself, but also self-discovery, learning to learn, developing self-sufficiency and more. Which means deciding on a major at such a young age is not always necessary, because there are many ways to discover and learn, and these can be achieved through gap years, employment and other experiential opportunities.

The next generation is under increasing pressure, and the number of pathways and amount of information available can be overwhelming. But they are not alone and there is help and guidance at hand. Many schools offer career and college counsellors, and there are other qualified advisors, too, who should be seen in the same light as sports coaches, developing their teams and players and driving them to success.

‘Traditional’ of ‘non-traditional’, the route to your chosen destination might not be the same as you first envisioned it, and it’s ok to change to an alternative, shorter, or even more fun and scenic route. Because it’s not so much about the destination, as the journey – so make it great.

Christophe Savard, Vice President – Student Pathways