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.
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