How Can Meta Skills Improve Your Knowledge, and Why Do Universities Ignore Them?

How Can Meta Skills Improve Your Knowledge, and Why Do Universities Ignore Them?

Meta skills are universal skills that can help you in all areas of life. They don’t become obsolete, even if you decide to try out a new career. How can meta skills help improve your knowledge, then? Simple: they open the door to learning, while domain-specific skills close them.

There’s nothing wrong with skills or knowledge about specific realms, of course. It’s just that these pursuits have narrow applications in life. Unfortunately, most people (and most universities) believe the antidote to this narrowness is to gather even more specific skills.

Skills aren’t collectable cards, though, and nobody has time to learn about a huge variety of topics they aren’t interested in. Instead, focusing on meta skills lets you bypass the pointless memorisation and actually develop yourself as a dynamic and fulfilled individual.

Specific vs Meta

It’s easy to understand specific skills; they’re the things you learn when you want to do something specific. Enjoy tinkering with cars? Building with wood? Painting with oils? There are specific skills associated with those tasks, and diving into them can make you a better mechanic, carpenter, or painter.

Meta skills sit above specific skills as a sort of universal umbrella. They aren’t tied to any singular pursuit, but they still enhance our abilities across all areas of life.

Some example meta skills:

  • Ability to learn, create, make, or build
  • Imagination
  • Critical analysis
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Principles of communication
  • Self-awareness
  • Productivity

Meta Skills in Daily Life

What would be the downside of not having a certain specific skill? What about a meta skill, are there downsides to not having one of those?

Let’s start with the specific skill of geography. Pretend you have no idea that the UK was once part of the Roman Empire. How does that impact your life? If you’re in the UK some people might think you should try reading a book once in a while. If you live in a remote village halfway around the world, though, there doesn’t seem to be much of a downside.

Now let’s consider the meta skill of self-awareness. What would happen if it was completely missing from your life?

For starters, you might blame other people for your failures and refuse to take responsibility for your own life. This would ruin friendships, prevent you from improving as an individual, and, in the long term, alienate you from the world. You would also miss out on countless opportunities to use meta skills to build more knowledge.

Specific skills are useful in certain situations for certain people but nearly useless elsewhere. Meta skills are useful in all situations, for all people, and for all of time. It’s clear that in most cases you aren’t really missing out if you lack a specific skill, but if you’re missing a meta skill, you’re operating with a severe deficit.

Universities Ignore Meta Skills

Modern education systems focus exclusively on teaching specific skills. We spend much of the first 20 years of our lives dedicated to memorising facts and developing areas of knowledge we’ll rarely use again.

If meta skills are more useful in more situations, and if meta skills actually help us learn other skills, wouldn’t we be better off if universities focused on teaching universal skills instead?

Child learning geography

I’d rather risk my son having gaps in his general knowledge of geography than be swimming in debt by age 25 because he lacked financial management skills. I’d also rather he not live in terrible health because he had no idea that living on chocolate bars, crisps and frozen pizza was a bad idea.

The default expectation is that meta and life skills are acquired independently of a formal education system. You learn knowledge in specific fields such as geography or history, then you somehow “move up” and gain meta skills after that.

The ability to discover a meta skill after learning a specific skill is itself a meta skill, and it’s certainly not being taught by any university. They’ve got the method backwards. What’s the point in gaining a specific skill you’re not interested in? Wouldn’t it be a better use of time if we started with meta skills and leveraged them to learn skills we’re actually interested in?

I think you know the answer is a very loud, very emphatic yes.

How Can Meta Skills Help Build Knowledge?

Successful individuals often put their achievements down to what they learned studying at the “school of life”. The term is usually wheeled out in response to questions about the individual not having a university degree: “How can you be so successful even though you didn’t go to school?!”

Maybe it’s not actually the knowledge and skills we acquire through formal education that contribute most to excelling at life. Maybe the school of life is where the important skills are learned.

And by school of life, of course, we mean learning by doing. Putting ideas into practice. Trying and failing and trying again.

Think about it like an elite sports star. The most successful footballers in history are those able to adapt and reinvent themselves as their specific skills and abilities change over time. They have self-awareness, self-discipline, and the ability to learn and adapt. They might train specifically for speed or endurance, but it’s their meta skills that keep them at the top of their game.

Knowing how to learn is more valuable than learning something you won’t use. You can always pick up specific skills along the way. And you will, too, if you’re properly rooted in valuable, universally applicable skills.

How can meta skills help build knowledge, then? By giving you the tools you need to do the things you need to do, when you need to do them, and the ability to do them well.

Meta Skills are Becoming More Important

There’s another reason why focusing on meta skills is important: specific skills are losing their value.

It may have been useful a century ago to spend your entire life running a single machine in a factory. You learn every bolt and cog on that device, and you are paid well for having that knowledge.

As technology spreads around the world, though, the value of focusing on narrow skills is decreasing. The impact of automation will be felt in the employment market by the mid-2020s. And, according to one report, by 2035 nearly half of the jobs in manufacturing, transportation, and retail trade will have high automation potential.

What’s valuable in a world where technology can take over highly specific tasks? Humans with strong meta skills. People who are good communicators, who know how to manage and lead and learn. We can’t teach meta skills to machines, after all.

The Future of Personal Ability

I think the formal education system has things the wrong way around. It shouldn’t be left to the lottery of family input and innate ability to develop meta skills. Learning specialist skills should be about specific needs, personal interest, and inclination, not part of a mandated curriculum.

Hopefully, formal education will one day recognise this and give every young person a chance to develop strong meta skills. Some specialist knowledge can be imparted along the way, too, but there’s no need to focus on it for force skills down students’ throats.

Right now, every young person and adult can take aim at meta skills on their own. Start by knowing that specific skills are only needed if you’re interested in pursuing the benefits those skills provide. If you genuinely have no interest in something, why force yourself to pick up that skill? There may be side benefits from having that knowledge, but your time is better spent working on meta skills that will enhance your entire life.

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.

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How Much Does It Cost to Educate a Person in the UK or the USA?

How Much Does It Cost to Educate a Person in the UK or the USA?

How much does it cost to educate a person from the first day of class to the moment they get their undergraduate degree? The numbers can vary widely, but if you’re in the UK or US, you could easily buy a new house for the same amount.

If you were buying a house, you would do research and consider the value of your investment before spending a penny. Few of us put in the same amount of effort when examining education. I think part of the reason is that school can feel like it’s free because it’s often subsidised.

There’s no such thing as a free education, though. In assessing the value of this huge investment, it’s important to know where the amounts come from and whether or not they’re justified in remaining so high.

Cost of Education in the UK and US

We’ll start by dividing education into two stages: grade school while we’re young, followed by our time at university.

The average cost of educating a child in the UK in 2018/19 was around £73,000. If we include other expenses covered by parents (books, uniforms, transportation), we can conservatively set the total cost of getting an education at £100,000.

In the USA, the estimated yearly cost of school ranges from $7,000 to $20,000 depending on the state of residence. Add in the same expenses as above and multiply across 12 years of schooling and we arrive at a total between $100,000 and $260,000.

The Cost of Going to University

A 2018 report released by HSBC found that most undergraduate degrees at public universities in the US cost $26,290 a year, with private university fees rising to $60,000. Over four years that adds up to a low-end total of $105,160.

In addition to actual fees paid for a university education, there’s also a measurement known as opportunity cost. This number represents income that could have been earned if a person started a career instead of going to university. If you attend university in the US your estimated opportunity cost is $40,000 per year.

Combining these figures we can estimate the total cost of attending university in the US is between $185,000 and $400,000 for a 4-year undergraduate degree.

In the UK annual tuition fees are capped at £9,250. If we use the same methodology as above and set the opportunity cost between £25,000 and £30,000 per annum, our ‘true cost’ of getting a 3-year bachelor degree in the UK is between £85,000 and £120,000.

Now let’s add everything up.

In the US it costs approximately $472,500 (£371,250) to educate a single person from grade school through college. In the UK it costs £202,500 ($257,352).

What about Free School?

Unless we’re paying for it out of pocket (or out of our parents’ pockets), most of us are used to thinking of school as “free.” The cost is covered through taxes.

Spreading out the burden of cost doesn’t make it disappear, however. In economically developed OECD nations, the average national budget reserved for education is 4%. As of 2020, the figure sits at 4.2% in the UK, but it rose as high as 5.7% in 2010. Those percentages may sound small, but at their peak they represented as much as £104 billion.

Even countries with reputations for affordable education bear similar cost burdens. Public universities in Germany are funded by the state, with students usually limited to covering a €250 semester enrolment fee. If we add in the opportunity cost and multiply the figures to cover getting a 4-year bachelor degree, the final cost sits between €98,000 and €224,000.

We all shoulder these fees, whether we realise it or not. It would be a mistake to ignore the costs or write them off as negligible when they clearly represent a major investment in many levels of society.

Getting What We Pay For

What do all of us get for this investment? It’s difficult to say, exactly. Most people are eager to point out that getting an education is an important part of becoming a useful member of society. Do the costs really need to be this high to achieve that, though? And does the educational system actually deliver on its promise of creating successful young adults?

After looking into the costs of educating a person and comparing it to the actual value of going to school, I came to the conclusion that no, we aren’t getting a fair return on our collective investment.

We previously showed that universities charge high tuition because they can, not because those fees are necessary to provide an education. Similar sentiments are also true with pre-university schooling. There’s a lot of bloat and inefficiency associated with education.

There are clear alternatives to spending this much on a system that’s failing its students. Universal Owl is working to build one such alternative that aims to teach useful meta-skills young people can use to improve all areas of their lives.

Many other organisations, from not-for-profit foundations to private business, are also offering alternatives to the university education system. Given the obvious issues with cost mentioned above, it can only be a matter of time before more models that challenge the status quo appear.

The most important lesson we can learn right now is that free schooling is anything but free. Like anything with a price tag attached to it, intelligent young people should question the value being provided, and take a good look at any alternatives there may be.

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.

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Why Sales Jobs are Better Preparation for the Real World than University

Why Sales Jobs are Better Preparation for the Real World than University

I got my first job in sales when I was ten years old.

Each day I would trudge through my neighbourhood streets, ringing doorbells and pitching subscriptions for multi-packs of crisps. I only earned 20p for each sale, which is probably why I threw in the towel after four afternoons.

I don’t look back on this experience as a failure or a waste of time. This position would kick off a lifelong interest in sales, and the lessons I learned from it stayed with me well into adulthood and influenced every area of my life — not just my career.

False Promises

Like most kids, I grew up hearing how a university degree would change my life. It would open up career opportunities, help me connect with peers, and give me the experiences I needed to succeed in the world.

As you might have guessed, none of those promises came to fruition. I spent more time unlearning what they taught me instead of applying what I had learned.

Take creative writing. You might think that studying this in school would have practical applications in sales, as both are about building a cohesive narrative and telling an interesting story. This wasn’t the case at all.

Writing courses at university focus on the structure and form of writing, completely ignoring the reader. In the real world and in sales, writing is all about the reader. I was shocked to hear that my post-school writing wasn’t cutting it, and that I had to re-learn how to write for an audience, not for a professor.

I ended up drawing from other experiences in my life to improve my communications and sales skills. As it turns out, random conversations with strangers about crisps taught me more about sales than all my years at university. School did the opposite of preparing me for the real world. 

Learning by Doing

The informal and entry level jobs I had as a kid showed me that if I wanted something, I had to go and get it myself.

Sometimes that meant doing something outside of my comfort zone, like knocking on a stranger’s door and striking up a conversation. Not only did this help me be more comfortable with talking to people, it also taught me to present and persuade.

Rejection is also part of the sales process. Working these jobs showed me that I couldn’t let a missed sale put me off. I had to go back and try again with the next person, putting into practise whatever lessons the botched sale could teach me.

By contrast, university taught me that failure is a bad thing. It doesn’t matter what you learn in class, only that you do your homework and pass the tests. Nobody cares if the things you “learn” help you in real life.

This was a critical lesson I had to learn outside of university: in order to succeed at something, you have to do it, not listen to lectures about it.

We’re All In Sales

Even if you aren’t interested in a sales position, learning good sales skills will directly impact your day-to-day life.

When deciding with friends or family what to watch on Netflix, you pitch your preference in the hope of convincing others to agree. Essentially, you’re selling your idea to your mates, and if they buy it, you get to watch whatever you want.

If an accountant thinks their ability to do their job well would be improved by adopting a new software solution, they will have to convince others within their organisation that this is a good decision. This is sales, too.

And believe it or not, getting what you want from your parents can also be a form of sales.

How Sales Skills Can Help You in Life

Most people look at entry level sales and retail jobs as being pointless. My experience has been just the opposite: they’ve prepared me more for success in the real world than any class I took at university.

Spending time in those roles teaches you to be resilient, to communicate and connect with a wide variety of people, and to present things in an attractive light supported by convincing arguments.

Those aren’t just skills that can help you sell crisps, they’re skills that help you become a better communicator in all areas of life.

You can learn these skills right now. If you have a retail or sales job, or if you find yourself talking to a lot of strangers, think about how you present the ideas you’re “selling.”

Consider the listener’s perspective — are you giving them the information they need? The emotional hooks that interest them? Put yourself in their shoes and share with their perspective in mind. And don’t be afraid to have a “missed sale.” That’s all part of the process.

This is real learning, and you’re picking up valuable skills. Don’t let anyone tell you an entry level job is pointless. Sales skills translate into many areas of life. The best way to build them is to get out in the world and start practising.

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.

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Financial Wisdom for Young People: How I Built Wealth By Investing in My Mind

Financial Wisdom for Young People: How I Built Wealth By Investing in My Mind

Are you the kind of person who spends hours researching the lowest price for a 500 pack of AA batteries? What about savings? Do you diligently sock away a percentage of your income each month without question?

This outlook might sound like the very definition of financial responsibility, but it won’t bring about financial security. Why? Because the problem isn’t about money. It’s about your mindset. 

More Money, More Spending

When I was 26 years old I lived in Sofia, Bulgaria. Purely by chance, I ended up taking a job as a real estate broker just before a massive housing boom swept the country. I was suddenly making more money than I had ever made before.

I didn’t rush out and buy cars, designer clothes, expensive champagne, or anything like that, but I still managed to burn through my salary as soon as it came in.

Most of my spending was on little things. I used taxis like public transport, travelled a lot, picked up the tab at the bar and in restaurants, etc. Food and entertainment weren’t really expensive, but because I spent without thinking, money never sat in my account for very long.

This attitude towards finances is careless and irresponsible. It doesn’t build anything for the future; not investments, not savings, nothing. It’s like turning on the tap and letting the water run straight down the drain.

Scarcity Begins

It didn’t take long for my money tap to run dry, and when it did, I was really, truly broke.

I was also annoyed with myself for having frittered away the considerable sums I’d been earning for close to three years. Like most people who find themselves in this situation, I vowed I would never go broke again.

I went back to London and crashed in my brother’s spare room. The only job I could get was a lower profile job in sales. London was far more expensive than Sofia, so I cut my expenses to the bare minimum. No unnecessary purchases, no travelling, no social outings. Paying for the Underground was painful enough.

This was the beginning of my scarcity mindset towards money. I was so worried about not having any cash I tried to save everything I could. That seemed like a smart plan, but it didn’t really put me in a better financial position in the long term, it just slowed my progress towards going broke.

Natalie Bacon has a wonderful summary of some of the thoughts someone trapped in a scarcity mindset might think. They include:

  • I don’t have enough money to do anything I want.
  • I have to work more hours to make more money.
  • I either have to do what I love or start making money.

Holding a scarcity mindset doesn’t mean you earn more money; it just stops you from losing what you have quite so fast. It’s better than a spend, spend, spend mindset, but not by much.

Finding Abundance

A few years later, I sold a business I was a shareholder in. The ensuing financial windfall helped shake me out of scarcity mode. It was just enough to let me survive off of part-time contract work for a few months without dipping into savings.

The benefits here were twofold. First, I wasn’t working 10-hour days for the first time in years. This gave me a chance to relax and collect myself. Second, I suddenly found myself with plenty of free time.

And what did I do with these extra hours? I invested in my future.

I spent a little money and a little time on online courses that taught me skills I was interested in learning. I wasn’t hoarding cash out of a fear of going broke, and I wasn’t blindly spending on transient everyday expenses, either. I used my money to invest in something that would pay back even more time and money – myself.

Just like that I had switched to an abundance mindset. I could finally see that money was a tool to help better myself, not something to be held onto out of desperation.

My focus now is on taking responsibility for my own life both personally and professionally. I exchanged the symptoms of a scarcity mindset for the attitudes of an abundance mindset:

  • I don’t have to work harder to create more money.
  • I can love my work and create a lot of money.
  • Giving money feels good (I love paying for a new course I’m excited about).
  • Debt means nothing about me.
  • Money is fun.

Investing in Yourself

How can you escape the scarcity mindset and move to abundance?

One method I found useful was to try something out, see if I liked it or learned something valuable, then decide if I would continue. That’s it. No pressure to succeed, no guilt for spending money, and no fear of failure. Money spent exploring my own curiosity one book, article, or online course at a time was money well-spent on my future.

Take a lesson from my wasted years and start today. Think of your mind as an asset, one that’s worth building up for long term rewards. Focus on developing your skills and, even more importantly, your mindset. Invest in yourself and don’t get sucked into the cycle of thinking about how much you “need” to earn, save, or invest every day.

You’ll almost certainly earn a lot more in the long term if you can break free from, or never fall into, the scarcity way of thinking and living. 

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.

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Universities Charge High Tuition Because They Can, Not Because They Must

Universities Charge High Tuition Because They Can, Not Because They Must

Going to university is expensive. Most people assume it’s because institutions have to pay professors and maintain large campus grounds, but it turns out this has little to do with tuition rates.

High tuition is the result of easily obtainable student funding in the form of loans and grants. Young people can borrow virtually any amount of money to attend school, and they don’t have to think about paying it back for years. This creates a false sense of financial security that starts to collapse the moment they get their degree.

Universities aren’t afraid to take advantage of these easily available funds by raising the price of tuition year after year. The more money potential students think they can access, the more universities will charge. This places people under an increasing burden of debt they will likely never recover from.

Rising Cost of Getting a Degree

The average tuition for private universities in the U.S. has more than tripled since 1987. Even public universities, which usually cost about two thirds less, have followed this trend. The situation is similar in the UK, where yearly fees rose sharply until they were capped at £9,250 ($11,836) in 2017.

Source: BBC

High tuition translates to high debt after graduation. The U.S. College Board calculates the average cumulative student debt balance for graduates of public four-year schools was $26,900 (£21,047) in 2017, and $32,600 (£25,507) for private non-profit four-year schools. It’s no better in the UK where the average student graduates with over £50,000 of loan debt.

Universities claim these increases are necessary. If we compare post-graduate degree fees with similar undergraduate courses, though, we see there is an unusual cost disparity. Around 80% of UK universities charge the maximum in tuition fees. Those same universities charge thousands less for post-grad courses in the same subjects. These programs are more competitive than undergraduate programs and should cost more as a result. The price difference shows that tuition rates do not necessarily parallel the cost of providing the education.

Easy Money for Universities, Hard Debt for Students

There is no driving will from universities to reduce costs or lower tuition fees, and there hasn’t been for decades. Two key factors have contributed to this: more students applying to university, and easy access to student loan funds.

Author and professor of economics Richard Vedder says universities will continue to raise prices, safe in the knowledge that students can always access loan funds to pay fees. Universities don’t have to worry about repeat customers, after all. They simply send graduates on their way and welcome a new crop of freshly indebted students the next year.

This financial cycle isn’t new. Universities have been called out many times for perpetuating it. A 1987 op-ed titled “Our Greedy Colleges” slams universities for taking advantage of federal aid policies to increase their bottom line. Over 30 years later the Foundation for Economic Education echoed the statement in a piece titled “Why College Tuition is So Expensive”, pointing out that the loan program offers what feels like “free money” to young people and encourages economically irrational behaviour.

Could university tuition fees be lowered without impacting education? It seems likely. Are universities willing to lower fees? Not as long as they can get easy money from students loaded with loans.

Degrees are Consumer Goods

The UK company All Car Leasing says its top five best-selling vehicles in 2018 included two Mercedes-Benz models and a BMW. These brands were once considered luxury vehicles, yet now they’re at the top of the most-leased list. What happened?

Those cars didn’t get cheaper; the initial financial barrier to get them simply lowered. People buy those cars on credit. We see this same economic model in the smartphone market where consumers get high-end phones in exchange for monthly payments. This allowed Apple to release $1,000+ iPhone models that pushed the company’s value above $1 trillion in 2019, despite a drop in overall sales growth. People are reluctant to pay $1,000 upfront for a phone. But $120 per month? Sign me up!

This same model is playing out with student loans and universities. Because there is no upfront cost to get a degree, young adults take the investment lightly, often seeing it as just a piece of paper to sign before matriculation.

We tend to think of going to university as a universally “good thing”, an investment in our future happiness and financial security. We need to stop thinking this way. Degrees actually have more in common with an ordinary consumer product that’s marketed and sold for profit.

In the TedX talk above, Sajay Samuel argues that a degree falls into the category of consumer goods. By engaging this shift in thinking, we can finally see that going into debt to get a degree isn’t always a sound investment. Most of the time it’s precisely the opposite.

Borrowed Money isn’t Free Money

When asked if the financial benefits of their degree outweighed the costs, just 51% of millennial graduates with student loan debt said yes.

What products would you use if the satisfaction rate was only 51%? If it was a smartphone or a TV, you probably wouldn’t bother, and you certainly wouldn’t go into debt to use it. Why, then, do we justify investing tens of thousands of pounds and years of our lives to get a degree that, by and large, doesn’t deliver the benefits it promises?

There is a fundamental error in the way we view the economics of going to university. We don’t look at our finances and calmly evaluate the cost of getting a degree weighed against real world benefits. We pick a university and borrow as much as it takes to pay tuition. It’s easy to spend money when it doesn’t come out of our own pocket. That spending will catch up to us, though. The majority of graduates are not prepared for that reality, and neither their university education nor their degree will help them out.

As I wrote in a previous article, degrees are not magic bullets that make life better for everyone. Degrees are a consumer product, packaged and marketed to teens, and we should treat them as such.

Thinking Like a Consumer

Before deciding to attend university, ask yourself the same questions you would ask before buying an expensive product:

  • What are the main benefits you will receive in exchange for the investment?
  • What will you be able to do with the degree once you have it in hand?
  • What are the alternatives, and how does their price to quality ratio stack up?

Don’t just ask these questions and accept an off-the-cuff answer from your family. Do the research. Look at data, find candid testimonies, search for both positive and negative opinions so you can be well-informed. Student loans often seem like free money that will be easy to pay back after graduation. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that this is rarely the case.

The smart consumer looks beyond the marketing when making buying decisions. Potential university students should do the same. Don’t let easy funds from loans trick you into making a financially unsound decision.

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.

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Should You Go To University? An Honest Look At The Economic Data

Should You Go To University? An Honest Look At The Economic Data

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.

Source: ONS

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?

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.

Source: ONS

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.

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