The Privilege of a Long Degree

Sunset over the quad. Photo my own. 

When I first came to Canada almost four years ago, I took a tour of the campus with two upper-year students. As I eagerly trailed behind them, I heard one of my leaders mention she was planning a five-year Fine Arts degree.

The idea almost stopped me in my tracks. Five years? As in, five full years? How could she afford that? And why would she stay so long?

It was only once I started getting to know my peers that I discovered just how cheap domestic tuition was. At the time, it was barely over $5,000 CAD for two full-time semesters. It shocked me even more to learn how common it was for Canadian students to take between 4 and 6 years to complete a bachelor’s degree–some degree programs even required it!

I smiled and asked follow-up questions in these degree-planning conversations, but inside I wondered: How could that ever be financially feasible?

Canada’s affordable tuition for domestic students makes a long bachelor’s degree accessible to many, if not all students. The privilege of a long degree is something that every student should be able to access. However, as an international student who pays more than $19,000 CAD a year for her education, the idea of a leisurely degree always felt frivolous and financially indulgent.

I never considered taking longer than four years, or four years and a semester, to complete my degree, because of how much it costs, even at UVic, which was more affordable than my other options.

It’s true that many UVic students take out loans because the costs of living (and renting) in Victoria especially are high. Yet in my hometown, students take 3 jobs and earn $16,000 USD in 3 months and still need help from their families or loans to cover their tuition, even after factoring in their scholarships.

Those who didn’t have parents to support them financially either don’t go to university at all, choose a small community college and live with their parents, or rack up upwards of $30,000 USD in student loans.

At first, the idea of a long degree irritated me. On a particularly bad day, I used to gripe to myself about how Canadian students are so lucky to be able to stroll through their time at university. I was annoyed when I thought of how my tuition could only be as cheap if I stayed in frigid, deadly-boring Alaska and went to the state university, where the fine arts degree programs are nearly eliminated by the conservative government every fiscal year, and community colleges are in constant danger of being shut down.

I was needled by the fact that even American ivy league schools were too expensive for my middle-class family, whereas the dirt-poor-but-brilliant students and the independently wealthy receive full ride scholarships or a check from their rich parents.

As I near the end of my time at UVic, all of these things still irritate me somewhat. Some days, I do wish I had domestic tuition here, and I can get a little annoyed when my Canadian friends complain about how expensive university is, when I know my family and I pay triple their rate.

But over the past four years of tuition-sticker shock and culture shock, I’ve learned that getting annoyed at circumstances doesn’t really solve anything. Every country has its advantages and disadvantages, and while I envy my friends’ affordable domestic education, many of them envy my employment opportunities in the United States.

I love where I grew up but studying and living in Canada has been an incredible learning opportunity for me, and not just in the classroom. The wonderful thing about getting my degree in a different country is that it comes with a new perspective; mainly that the place you come from may be great (it may even tell itself it’s great), but in comparison it does things badly (like, really badly).

My time in Canada has shown me that there really is a better way to structure and fund post-secondary education. I always knew the US education system was horrifically unfair, but it took seeing UVic students happily in the 5th year of their undergraduate degree and (by comparison) financially stable to realize just how badly the US disadvantages its students.

At the end of this reflection on the odd, lovely phenomenon of the Canadian long bachelor’s, I can only say: to all domestic students, don’t rush your degree. Take your time to learn fully and immerse yourself in the university experience.

Live with your best friends and go on adventures. Add a minor halfway through when you discover your passion for computer science or geography. Enroll in Co-op and go study abroad (well, after COVID-19 that is…). Take full advantage of the opportunities that UVic gives you.

Recognize your privilege as a citizen of a country that believes in taking care of its people and use your education to help build a better world. As an international student who has completed a major and a minor, plus a semester abroad in only four short years, know that if you can afford a longer degree, take the chance: my four years were certainly packed, and I could have used with a little more breathing room some weeks!

A long undergraduate degree is an amazing benefit–so many others aren’t so lucky. As we all look ahead to the next semester, consider adding some of the out-of-the-classroom opportunities to your degree plan, even if it means extending your time in university. At UVic, it’s worth it.

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1 Response

  1. Aaron says:

    I Lindsey,

    Great Article!

    I’ve never considered the ability to extend study as a privilege, but you make some really good points about how things are different as an international student.

    Another advantage to taking your time and studying over a longer period is accessing opportunities and gaining experiences which compliment the education. I think that most students are looking for new opportunities after graduation, but we sometimes neglect the value of real world experience such as volunteering or entry level jobs in our chosen field – like your idea of co-op placement.

    Also, the “how” of where we are going always seems as important as the destination. It’s always been important to have meaningful work along my studies and not be in any real rush.

    Best of luck!