A very common question asked by young people and their parents is whether a university degree is worth the money. My experience tells me that this question comes up more for families where university is not necessarily a ‘natural’ next step at age 18.
What I mean is that for many going to university is not really a question, despite the associated costs. For them it’s more about what subject to study and where to go. Often for these families, there is a strong belief in the value of education and a tradition of going to university. There is a desire to experience university life, not just the social side but also as a relatively sheltered way of learning more about life and to be independent. They also want a degree because they consider it will help them develop essential skills for work such as research, analysis and critical thinking. They believe it will open doors for a wider range of careers not to mention graduate trainee schemes. They recognise that a degree can confer greater upward mobility and potential for getting better paid jobs.
The ‘worth’ or ‘value’ of a degree seems to be more of an issue for less well-off families where university has not been typical and for youngsters who are uncertain about what career they want to pursue. Questions about whether university is really worth it, I believe, are more common now not only because of the high costs associated with undergraduate study but also because alternatives, such as apprenticeships, have become a more credible and realistic choice.
In addition, the disruption to education provoked by the pandemic has also impacted opinions on the value of university with many questioning the amount of contact time they are given relative to the costs.
It seems to me that whenever I listen to any talks about university education, the cost is something that is regularly played down. This is understandable perhaps from the universities themselves and from other groups with a vested interest in promoting university education.
‘Worth’ is usually about money and a quick check of the cost of tuition fees has revealed that it costs the same to study Biochemistry at Manchester University, Media Studies at the University of Brighton and Law at Birmingham University. Dance and Choreography at Falmouth University, Animal Behaviour and Psychology at Chester University and Ethical Hacking and Cybersecurity at Coventry University all also cost £27,750 over three years.
Most courses therefore seem to cost the same irrespective of subject or where you study them. Cost of living may differ from one area to another and may impact where you go. But irrespective of whether students go somewhere relatively close to home or as far away as possible, there is no question that the debt* will be a large one.
The average student leaves university with a £45k debt* (Boudicca Fox-Leonard in The Telegraph). Interest will make this higher.
So how can you decide whether university is worth it?
One way is to compare earnings potential.
A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in 2017 showed that women can earn up to £250,000 more over a lifetime if they have a degree, and men £170,000. More recent figures suggest graduates will earn about £9,500 per year more on average than non-graduates (Will Kirkman 8 May 2022 in the Telegraph). These of-course are averages and there will be many exceptions. But for some, this may be a factor in favour of degrees (and maybe also makes the debt* seem less significant).
Universities may cost the same but they are not all equal
For example, the IFS study found that those who attend a Russell Group university earn around 40% more five years or so after graduating than graduates from other institutions. However, this isn’t the same for all Russell Group institutions. Graduates from Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics seem to earn the most. More recent data gathered by Adzuna would add Imperial and University College, London.
Courses may cost the same but they are not equal
For example, graduates in mathematics and economics command higher salaries on average after five years while those that studied art & design, agriculture, psychology, and communications appear to have the least earning potential. Fashion degrees seem to be right at the bottom. Economics is one of the best paying degrees. Medicine and dentistry also command highest salaries but then theirs are often the longest courses. And you can’t practice either without a degree.
Grade of degree can also have an impact. The higher the grade the better the earning potential. Greater pressure now though with so many more graduates earning firsts compared to ten years ago.
A degree is not essential for some professions. It is for teaching.
In conclusion, it will be down to most people’s personal views and situations as to whether university is worth it for them. My top piece of advice is to ensure that if you go to university you study a subject that you are really interested in and want to know more about. You love it for its own sake. With any luck, after that, other things will fall into place.
If in doubt, there can be little harm in simply getting a job after school and reassessing at a later stage. An organised Gap Year can also be a very positive experience that could add to your CV.