More people than ever have a university degree. As of 2017, 40% of the UK population were graduates, up from 25% in 2002 and just 4% in 1960. This is despite the growing cost of attending university.
Many of us believe that going to university is a good idea. But what leads us to that conclusion? Are we asking the right questions when making the decision, or are we just blindly accepting what society has impressed upon us our whole lives?
Everyone Says Getting a Degree is Good
As a high school pupil with a strong academic record in the working class town of Fife, Scotland, aspiring to a place at university was a given. Especially a prestigious university. “If you can, you should,” was the consensus from the adults surrounding me.
My eventual offer from the University of Edinburgh was applauded by my teachers and a source of pride at home. My family didn’t see university as the ‘be all and end all’ when it came to having a happy and financially stable life, yet my offer was still worthy of praise.
This attitude is, I think, the general consensus of society as a whole. Go to university and get a degree because it will pave the way to a better paid career. All you have to do is graduate and you’re set for life.
I went on to receive two degrees: an MA in Philosophy & English Literature and a post-grad MA in Central & South East European Studies. 15 years later, I still have mixed feelings on how much those years of study and the five-figure debt benefitted me.
The More People Who Have a Degree, The Less Valuable They Become
As a successful entrepreneur, I’ve learned that the fundamental rule of economics is that of supply and demand. If demand for something stays the same but supply increases, the value of that thing drops. With so many more graduates now than ever before, the economic value of the average degree is less than it was 50, 25, or even 10 years ago.
Over the fifteen years between 2002 and 2017, the number of recent UK graduates working in ‘non-graduate’ roles increased by 10%. The fact that almost 40% of recent graduates in 2002 were working in non-graduate jobs suggests there was a greater supply of people with degrees than demand for them. That gap has since grown by another 10%.
In today’s world, getting a degree does not guarantee you will get a better or higher paying job. It only guarantees you will have more debt while working alongside people who do not have degrees.
Degrees Do Not Lead to Drastically Higher Earnings
Fewer people than ever are landing graduate-level jobs after obtaining their degree. What about the people who do land an appropriate job? Is the investment worth it?
A report published by the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies and commissioned by the Department for Education sheds some light on that question. The results are a mixed bag.
On average, women with a degree earned 28% more than those who without one. For men, those with degrees earned an average of just 8% more than non-graduates.
The gain for women is probably lower than the headline figure. The study looked at earnings at the age of 29. Women who don’t go to university statistically tend to have children at a younger age. At 29 many of them work part-time, which the earnings figures didn’t account for, or will have spent time out of the workforce as full-time parents. Women who graduated and go on to have children often haven’t yet given birth at the age of 29.
The 8% higher earnings of 29-year-old men with a degree translated into £2700 extra per year. Is that increase worth the financial investment? At £2700 extra, many students in the UK would need to work for over 10 years just to pay off initial tuition costs.
The study found it made a big difference what university a degree was from and in which subject. Graduates from Russell Group universities earned significantly more than those from non-Russell Group universities. Graduates in degrees such as engineering and finance also had notably higher earnings than graduates with degrees in creative and arts subjects.
The data shows that studying for a degree means less and less as more people have them. It simply isn’t economically sustainable to accumulate so much debt for such marginal or non-existent rewards.
Degrees are Becoming a Liability, Not an Asset
For some professions like doctors, lawyers and engineers, a degree is a requirement. For many other careers, a degree is, at best, a “preferred” requirement.
Some of the biggest companies in the world, like Apple, Google and Netflix, no longer require a degree. A growing number of entrepreneurs and managers do not think a degree is necessary, either. Some say it’s a negative. This idea of degrees as detriments could one day even become the norm.
This YouTube compilation of successful entrepreneurs questioning the value of a university degree offers food for thought. I particularly like this quote:
“Look at how many people go to business classes. If everything you needed to be successful in business was in that book, there would be too many successful business people. How many people graduate? The professor wouldn’t have time to teach you because they’d be too busy being a successful entrepreneur.”
The most common argument against degrees is that companies don’t want employees who followed a standard path. They are looking for character traits typically found in those who question the status quo and strike out in their own direction. There is real value in taking it upon yourself to acquire knowledge and skills on your own, and the market is starting to see that.
Universities Teach You to Follow Rules, Not Be a Leader
Formal education teaches plenty of lessons, but most of them are centered around obedience and fear of failure. The kind of knowledge and skills acquired at university have little in common with what is required in the real world.
As part of my first degree I studied creative writing and did well. When I began to write as a sales and marketing professional, and later as a contributor to projects like Universal Owl, I actually had to unlearn much of what I’d been taught at university. What my professors liked wasn’t what the market wanted.
Doesn’t going to school make you a better lifetime learner, though? Not really. Universities teach students to follow a syllabus and pass an exam, not to create or adapt their own learning programs. Without a syllabus in hand, a graduate is no better off than anyone else when faced with the prospect of gaining new knowledge.
Social Experiences Alone Do Not Justify Tuition
Another oft-touted advantage of going to university is the ‘soft’ benefits. Everyone says you will mix with and learn from other bright young minds from different backgrounds, helping you get out of the bubble of your own childhood experiences. You’ll also have the chance to join various societies and clubs to help you become a well-rounded individual.
I certainly enjoyed those experiences and feel they helped shape my approach to living. That alone doesn’t lead to a successful life or career, though. It’s also not enough to justify paying tuition costs year after year.
University fees are paid in return for a course of education that leads to a degree. The degree is supposed to offer an entry point to a financially rewarding career, one that would otherwise be unavailable without that piece of paper.
Soft benefits and character shaping opportunities can be a positive side-effect of student life, but there are plenty of other ways we can gain those experiences, ways that won’t leave us in lifelong debt.
Practical Experience is More Important Than a Degree
Learning any skill is a process of education. The question is, does that ‘education’ need to come in the form of an expensive university degree? Can skills instead be gained through alternative means such as quality online courses, self-taught through materials in the public domain, questioning experts, or on-the-job experience? I believe so.
The discipline and enthusiasm needed for self-learning is more important in the world of work than a degree. Most employers want to see theoretical and practical skills from candidates. There is absolutely no reason that has to come from a traditional university.
Make an Informed Choice
Evidence suggests the lifetime economic value of holding a degree is declining. It’s not the insurance policy for a minimum level of professional success it maybe once was. It’s also far from clear that school teaches us things we will use after graduating, or if a degree teaches us to approach lifetime learning in the right way.
This is not an argument against going to university or getting a degree, per se. It is an argument against doing so because you think it’s the silver bullet that will ensure higher income and better job satisfaction after graduation.
Whether or not you choose to go to university is a personal decision, one that should be made with the awareness that university is increasingly not the only route to financial stability and/or wealth, happiness and personal and professional fulfilment. Your job is to actively decide if a degree should be your first step towards a career. And whatever you initially decide, remember it’s never too late to change direction.
I studied English Lit. & Philosophy and ended up working in sales, marketing, finance, writing, and eventually owning my own website. Lives and careers are paths with frequent options to change direction. That’s why they are so interesting!
Don’t be lulled into thinking there is only one, simple, clear path available to you. Explore your options, learn by doing, be your own hero, and know that in the end, you are the only one who can determine what’s best for your future.
John Alexander Adam writes for Universal Owl on topics relating to finance. An entrepreneur, he has one successful exit behind him. John has almost 10 years of experience as a writer and editor on consumer finance, investment and tech topics.
He currently writes and consults while studying for his purple belt in SEO and conversion science. In his spare time, he enthusiastically pursues hobbies he’s not very good at, such as football, squash and raising a small child.
It’s normal for your relationship with your parents or guardians to change over time, especially once you become a young adult and start to stake out your own individual preferences. But this process of asserting yourself often leads to conflict. It can be hard for parental figures to accept that your wishes and desires are different from theirs.
If you’re struggling to assert boundaries, express your needs (including dissatisfaction with school), or start difficult conversations with your parents, the principles of Nonviolent Communication can be really helpful.
What is Nonviolent Communication?
The concept of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) was developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. It’s based on the idea that human behaviour is rooted in attempts to meet our most fundamental needs. When this fails, we often resort to violent or harmful actions out of sheer frustration.
This frustration can be seen in many types of communication, but it’s especially noticeable between young people and their parents. How many times have you felt like your father or mother just didn’t understand you? The thing is, they often feel the same way: that you don’t “get” where they’re coming from.
Bridging this gap is what Nonviolent Communication is all about.
The 4 Stages of Effective Communication
Nonviolent Communication aims to help people identify their own needs, the needs of the other party, and needs shared by both. You and your parents want what’s best for you; it’s just that you’re approaching the problem from different angles. NVC can help you work together.
Nonviolent communication consists of four basic steps:
Observe facts about the world. Start by talking to the other person about clearly defined facts that you can both agree on.
Describe your emotions. To communicate effectively, you need to understand how you feel about the facts you’ve agreed on. You aren’t trying to argue, you’re trying to convey your emotional state.
Identify the needs and desires of the other person. Use empathy to understand the underlying reasons for the other person’s perspective and behaviours. Try to be aware of your own needs and desires as well.
Propose a course of action. In this step, you suggest a way forward or some kind of compromise so both you and the person you’re talking to get what they want.
This system is extremely useful because it gives you a structure to work through when you are feeling upset, angry, or frustrated. As someone who used to have a short temper when I was younger, I found that I would often yell or argue because I wasn’t feeling heard. When I tried to communicate how I felt, I didn’t have the right words or structure to express myself, which resulted in a lot of slammed doors. Over time, though, I learned that if I could communicate more effectively, I didn’t feel as angry or frustrated. When you’re able to lay out what you feel and why, it’s much easier to stay calm and reasonable.
A key principle of this approach is that you’re not trying to “win” an argument. Instead, you’re trying to understand the other person’s perspective so you can come to a solution which works for both of you.
Using NVC in practice
Let’s look at three examples of how young people could use this method to communicate with their parents over typical disagreements.
Example 1: Disagreements over education and future prospects
Emma is seventeen and preparing to apply for universities. She has always loved reading, and she wants to study English literature. But her parents think that’s impractical. They want her to study something more concrete, like business or economics. How can she address this with them?
This situation is difficult because Emma knows she will have to spend the next three years studying whatever subject she chooses. And she knows she’s most interested in English and would love to study that. But her parents are concerned about her job prospects, and whether her degree will set her up well for her future.
A bad way to communicate about this would be for Emma to get angry and tell her parents she doesn’t care what they think. Phrases like “You don’t understand me” or “You want to control everything I do,” even if they are true, are not an effective way for Emma to get what she wants.
Instead, Emma can use the framework we described:
Observe facts: “You know that I’ve always loved to read. Books have been a big part of my life for a long time.”
Describe emotions: “When I think about studying English, I feel excited and hopeful for the future. When I think about studying something else, I feel restless and uninspired.”
Acknowledge her parents’ feelings: “I understand that you’re worried about my future and you want me to be able to get a good job at the end of my studies.”
Propose a compromise: “What if I studied English as my major, but took some classes in business as well? That way, I could feel inspired by my studies but also build up skills for future jobs.”
Example 2: Poor boundaries around personal relationships
Jennifer is eighteen and has been dating her boyfriend for several months. Her father keeps asking her intrusive and inappropriate questions about her love life and the physical status of her relationship. She finds this overbearing and shaming.
Parents are not always comfortable when their children begin to date or look for romantic relationships. Jennifer’s father may think she is too young to be pursuing relationships, or that her partner is a poor choice. This is upsetting for Jennifer, who considers herself an adult and capable of making her own decisions about her partners.
A bad way to communicate about this would be for Jennifer to lay down an ultimatum, like “If you don’t stop interfering in my love life, I’ll move out of your house and go and live with my boyfriend.” There may indeed come a time when she needs to move out in order to have her freedom. But before taking that drastic step, she can try to communicate with her father:
Observe facts: “You’ve been asking a lot of questions about my boyfriend recently.”
Describe emotions: “When you ask probing questions, I feel uncomfortable, like I can’t be trusted to make my own decisions.”
Identify needs: “I understand that you have a need to keep me safe. My need here is to learn for myself what I want in a relationship.”
Propose action: “I would like you to stop asking me so many questions about him, and in return I promise I will let you know if I need help or advice about him.”
Example 3: Differing values about technology
Sam is sixteen and he uses his phone all the time to stay in touch with friends. His mother thinks he spends too much time on his phone and he should be going outside instead. Whenever she gets upset with him, she takes away his phone. Then he’s left with no way to communicate with the important people in his life.
Technology is one of those subjects that causes issues because different generations see it so differently. For Sam, his phone is a basic essential for texting with his friends, looking up important information, and managing his life. For his mother, his phone is a shallow distraction which prevents him from focusing on what is really important.
A bad way for Sam to communicate his frustrations would be to invoke the past, like “You always do this” or to invoke other people, like “None of my friends’ parents do this to them.” Both of these will only make his mother defensive, and therefore less likely to compromise with him.
For the best chance of finding a compromise, Sam can try this:
Observe facts: “I know I use my phone a lot. And I know you don’t like how much time I spend on it, and you think taking it away will make me more receptive.”
Describe emotions: “But I use my phone to talk to my friends. When I can’t contact them, I feel isolated and alone. I feel like I don’t have anyone to talk to.”
Identify needs: “I see you want me to be more present during family time, and not to be distracted by my phone.”
Propose action: “If you let me keep my phone, I’ll agree to not use it during dinner. Dinner time can be our time to talk as a family. And then after dinner, I can contact my friends.”
Communication takes practice
Communication between teenagers and parents can be particularly difficult because of power imbalances. If you are under eighteen, or if you are financially dependent on your parents, or if you live in their house, then they have a lot more power to compel you to act in certain ways.
If you struggle to communicate and to make your parents see your point of view, don’t beat yourself up emotionally. It is objectively hard to make yourself heard, and it takes practice to stay calm and stand your ground in a disagreement. Growing pains like this are natural and inevitable as you assert your independence and become an adult.
As you finish reading this article, take a moment to reflect on a frequent disagreement with your parents that would allow you to practise NVC. With this method, you might be able to reach a compromise that meets everyone’s needs.
Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.
She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.
I bet you don’t remember when you took your first steps, but I can guarantee you fell down. A lot. You failed at walking. And talking. And using a spoon.
You didn’t know what failure meant then, so you kept on trying until you succeeded. So why as adults do we resist continuing to try after a few failed attempts at something? Our culture has taught us at a young age that failure has to be avoided at all costs. But there is another way to look at failure: as something we can use to our advantage in our journey toward growth and success.
Failing your way to a successful exercise routine
Let’s consider exercise as an example. Everyone knows exercise is a fundamental part of a healthy lifestyle, not just for physiological fitness but for mental and emotional fitness as well. When you feel good about your body, everything in life tends to fall into place. You look better so you eat better. You eat better so you feel better so you perform better. It’s all very synergistic.
But finding the perfect exercise routine takes a lot of trial and error. Or, put another way, it takes a lot of failure.
My relationship with failure in school
I used to be ashamed of failure as much as anyone else. At school, Field Day filled me with dread. Having a distinct lack of athletic ability, I knew I’d be overlooked by the team captain for every event. I believed I had no skill and no talent in any sport and plotted to be conveniently ill so I could hide out in the nurse’s office all day. I felt weak and unpopular.
Looking back, I can pinpoint the exact moment someone told me I was no good at sports. I internalized that belief and from that point forward believed I was simply no good at anything athletic. Trying to develop and stick to an exercise routine was a chore instead of the healthy choice it should’ve been.
Obesity as a growing global problem
I’m not the only one who felt this way as a kid. According to the World Health Organization, obesity rates have nearly tripled since 1975 across the board for all age groups. Most notably, over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese in 2016.
It’s also no surprise that exercise has been slashed from school curriculums worldwide. This short-sighted decision has bred a generation of students that are unaware of the importance of exercise and unaware of how to incorporate the habit of exercise into their daily routine.
Obesity rates continue to climb as people become more and more sedentary every generation. So how can we reverse this dangerous trend? I can’t speak for the whole of society, but I can share how I was able to start leading an active lifestyle in my own life.
How I changed my relationship with failure
As I grew up and chose my occupation, I discovered I loved food. I loved to learn about it, make it, and most of all, eat it. I became fascinated with the concept that food was fuel for my body, so I learned about the best fuel for my body and how it could nourish and heal me.
I knew I needed to incorporate exercise into my daily life, but I didn’t want to feel miserable doing it or ashamed for not doing it. I needed to adjust my perception from an expectation of perfect athletic performance to one of just showing up and seeing what happened.
I tried everything: group aerobics, softball, basketball, spin classes, you name it. But still, I resented having to ‘show up’ for something that I wasn’t genuinely looking forward to. I wanted to have fun at getting fit, but first I had to figure out how to reframe my own concept of failure.
Seeing failure as part of the process and accepting it as an inevitable instead of something shameful let me try new things without so much pressure on myself. Eventually, I found the type of exercise that is exactly my jam: running. I’m proud to say I have competed in multiple 5K runs over the last 25 years.
Find Your Jam
Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you find your jam:
What did I love to play as a kid? Kickball? Softball? Or did I like dancing in my room all by myself, or riding my bike?
What time of day am I most active? What does my schedule look like? Am I an early bird or a night owl?
Am I a competitive person or do I just want to have fun? Sometimes the best exercise is when you don’t even know you are doing it. Team sports like soccer, baseball, volleyball, hiking, and even dancing fall into this category.
How much time do I want to devote to exercise? Do I want to work out daily or a few times a week? What can I genuinely commit to for optimum results?
Do I want to exercise alone or in a group? Am I happier in a group or do I prefer ‘lone warrior’ pursuits like the bike or the track or the treadmill?
What does my budget look like? Can I afford things like gym or team fees, uniforms and equipment?
The key here is to focus on the process, not the end goal.
Try something. Fail at it. Fail at it repeatedly until you find the program that works for you.
Failure is not a bad thing, it simply means you haven’t found the solution or process that works for you yet. This theory can (and should) be applied to every aspect of your life. If you never try, you will always fail. Yet with every failure, you are closer to a victory. It’s the process that counts.
As NBA All-Star Michael Jordan so famously says, “The key to success is failure.” So keep trying, and keep failing. And keep on keeping on!
Shannon Llewellyn is the health writer for Universal Owl. A Cordon Bleu chef who always enjoyed writing on the side, she recently made the transition into writing full-time.
Her spare time is mostly taken up with running, meditating, yoga, and being grandma to Sammy.
Mythological stories from every culture are brimming with larger-than-life heroes: The hydra-slaying Hercules, the heroic Beowulf, the mighty Monkey King Sun Wukong, even the flawed Karna from ancient Hindu tales.
We look to fictional and real-world heroes as ideals to emulate in our own lives. They conquer their personal demons, stand tall in the face of adversity, and adhere to their personal ethics no matter what the world throws at them. We admire these traits, and as a society we think everyone should strive for them.
Today, few people see even a sliver of heroism in themselves. We look to heroes modern and ancient, fictional and real, and we wish we could have that life. When it becomes apparent that we aren’t as clever as Odysseus or as strong as Hercules, our first instinct might be to give up and stay in bed.
We want to feel heroic, but the only way to experience that might be to grab a video game and slay a virtual hydra.
The education system blocks people’s heroic impulses
It can be difficult to walk the path of heroism when there are institutions that actively discourage self-reflection. Sitting in a classroom every day for a dozen years before hiding in an office for a few dozen more is about the furthest thing from the heroic ideal I can imagine.
The modern educational system herds people into classrooms and systematically teaches them conformity and agreeableness. Follow the rules or be punished. Do not pursue your own interests and do not attempt to acquire self-knowledge. Just memorize names and dates so you can get an A on your homework.
Can you imagine Hercules in a classroom raising his hand for permission to use the restroom? Or Beowulf getting upset over a bad grade? The absurdity isn’t that Hercules would look ridiculous in a school uniform, it’s the idea that our educational system is even remotely capable of producing heroes at all.
How heroes can inspire us
Most ancient Greeks understood their stories of heroes and gods as symbolic tales. There were truths at the center of Theseus’s victory over the Minotaur, but those truths were about human nature, not about real events which literally happened.
The value of heroic tales is in the lessons they convey. We aren’t meant to look at heroes as figures whose greatness we can never approach. Rather, when we see their cleverness and perseverance, we should look within ourselves for similar qualities. This allows us to meet challenges in our lives with knowledge and purpose.
Internalization is key. This is where the real value of heroism lies: using them as inspiration for self-reflection, goal setting, and internal change.
My baby steps towards heroism
Heroism is built in pieces, not captured in dramatic moments. We tend to focus on the most impressive part of any hero’s journey, like when Hercules felled the hydra. But the more valuable part of that story was when Hercules rolled out of bed that morning and decided to start on his journey instead of watching the Olympics.
A few years ago I suffered a severe injury to my leg. It was enough to leave me bedridden for weeks, confined to crutches for months, and hobbling on unbalanced and atrophied muscles for years. I was an active hiker and weight lifter before the injury, yet now I could barely carry myself to the front door.
My injury presented both a long-term goal and a clear obstacle: I wanted to walk up those snowy mountains I could see outside of my window. I couldn’t just wait a year then scamper up the slopes, though. I had to get up and walk across the room first. Then walk to the grocery store. Then train my legs to carry me up stairs again.
Even as a bedridden invalid I was able to make an impact on my life. It was slow, filled with small setbacks, and not nearly as dramatic as a Greek myth, but the change was very real, very tangible, and it opened the way to far greater accomplishments later on.
The first step any hero must take is to battle the demons within. They may not be as obvious as a busted leg or as dramatic as defeating a dragon, but that doesn’t mean the struggle is any less meaningful or real.
Starting the hero’s journey requires only the ability to self-reflect. That’s something you can do right this second. Examine your life to see what you want, to see what is holding you back. What negative patterns do you see in your life that prevent you from getting what you want? Maybe you tend towards destructive or self-defeating thoughts, the kind that keep you from taking chances on new ventures. Maybe it’s an issue with unhealthy eating, poor exercise habits, or inadequate sleep.
These demons may seem insignificant, but they have a tremendous impact on your life. You’ll see just how powerful they were as soon as you start slaying them.
Once you have conquered the inner demons you will then be able to bring your heroism to the outside world. It’s more difficult to affect positive change on your friends, family, and beyond, but now that you know how to deal with internal problems and have bettered yourself as a result, you can have a real impact on others. Just the inspiration of seeing someone strong in themselves is often enough to inspire change.
Heroism is built from within, not bestowed from without. Work on finding and conquering those inner demons and you’ll see just how powerful you can be.
John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.
His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.