Should You Really Go To University?
It seems that now more than ever before the wisdom of going to university and even the utility of a degree itself is being called into question. For some, this is akin to heresy!
Now, there is no doubt that striving to improve oneself at any and all stages of life is admirable, and some would argue entirely necessary, but what if that education were to come at a significant financial and emotional cost with no guarantee of future career success or financial prosperity?
I would never tell someone they shouldn’t go to university or pursue a degree program, just that you should be sure you know what you’re getting into.
If your goal of taking a degree program to get yourself market-ready, then some degrees will be better than others. If you’re goal is to simply receive a classical liberal education, then some programs, institutions, and electives will be of more value and of better quality than others.
Degrees of Worth
Over 44 million Americans hold over $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. 57% of students enrolled in college are still not finished after six years and of that 57%, 33% drop out entirely.
If you intend to go to university, then you better be damn sure you know what you’re getting into, and exactly what you intend to get out of it. It can be an expensive mistake, not just in financial terms but in precious years.
The utility of Degrees in medicine, engineering, law, and technology are rarely questioned and there are solid reasons for that. STEM programs are the future and there will continue to be strong demand for graduates in those areas.
If getting a job is your goal, then it would seem that STEM programs along with one or two others (Law & Accounting) are a good bet.
According to Payscale.com, the highest paying jobs with a Bachelor’s Degree in 2018 were;
1 Petroleum Engineering
2 Operations Research & Industrial Engineering
3 Actuarial Mathematics
4 Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering
5 Public Accounting
6 Building Science
7 Aeronautics & Astronautics
8 Systems Engineering
9 Business Analysis
10 Economics and Mathematics
What about the others?
Does the world need more bright young people spending 4 of the most vital years of their lives studying for a 4-year degree of dubious value?
According to a blog on CareerAddict.com, the top 10 most useless degrees are;
1. Culinary Arts
2. Fashion Design
3. Art History
7. Liberal Arts
8. Studio Arts / Fine Art
9. Performing Arts
10. Anthropology and Archaeology
Would you agree with that?
Although I may not necessarily agree with everything in that blog, over the years as a recruiter and resume writer, I’ve come across a disproportionate number of people struggling to find their purpose or make a good fist of a career with degrees in some of the subjects in that list.
Where’s The Value?
Two of the most common questions asked in relation to the utility of a degree are – “Is it worth the money?” and “Will I get a job afterwards?”
Look at the statistics some of the universities offer up about the fabulous employment rates of their graduates and you’d think you couldn’t lose.
Try to drill down into those stats to find out how many people they cite are working in job that don’t actually require a degree, and you won’t get far.
I’m sure you’ve seen the TV shows charting the lives of underemployed students? No?
Let me give you a spoiler for the one I watched. It goes something like this: woman works at a sushi restaurant during school, obtains a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communications, is still working in the same sushi restaurant 2 years later. The end. She wasn’t the only one.
In a report by the Strada Institute for the Future of Work and Burning Glass Technologies, a career market analytics company, they found that over 40 percent of college graduates take positions out of school that don’t require a degree and more than 1 in 5 college grads still aren’t working a degree-demanding job a decade after leaving school.
If you know you’d be one of those people before you enrolled, would you still go ahead and enroll?
Plan Early, Plan Long
You need to develop a plan while you’re still at high school. What are you good at? What are you interested in? Go and research those roles – try to get an opportunity to understand what your day-to-day would be like if you ever end-up doing that role. Speak to people who are currently doing that job. What do they like, what do they not like?
You must do your research, know why you’re choosing to do a specific degree program, and what you need to do afterwards to actually get a job in that field. It may seem a lot to ask of someone that age, but when the alternative is committing them to a multi-year degree and thousands upon thousands of dollars in debt, I’d consider it essential, wouldn’t you?
An Emotional Issue
Try talking to a parent of a high-school age student about the possibility of their child not going to university and most of them, in my experience, will look at you liked you’ve turned pea green or trying to snatch little Charlie’s golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
You can’t underestimate the extent to which the drive to gain entry to University is embedded in the psyche of most people in our education system. It seems as though the sole goal, as it’s trumpeted by the educators, is to create a never-ending funnel of kids for the university system without any regard for whether this is practical, desirable, or the best use of the innate talents these kids have.
A Playground for Big Kids
For those people not taking a STEM degree or one of the few others that can actually prepare you for working life, there is a widespread belief that University (for those people) is nothing but a waste of time. Now, there are exceptions, however when you see some of the courses that have been developed, vetted, and then offered by otherwise reputable further education institutions, it does raise a few questions.
For example, Rutgers University in New Jersey offered a course called Politicizing Beyoncé through their Women’s and Gender Studies department.
If you enjoyed Star Wars movies as a kid then Belfast’s Queen’s University has you covered with the ‘Feel the Force: How to Train in the Jedi Way’ course!
If that’s all too intellectual for you, you could always chill with one of the many Underwater Basket Weaving modules offered by US universities, including Reed College of Portland and the University of California.
Looking for something a little more off the wall? Then Migros Club School, Switzerland’s largest adult education institution, will teach you the Klingon language. Or perhaps you see your future enrolling in Santa Clara University’s “The Joy of Garbage” course.
Is it really any wonder enrollments are declining?
Students making applications to go to university in the UK in 2018 were down by 11,000 on 2017, even though there had been an increase in interest from overseas students, according to figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas).
In a survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council of 1,087 graduate business programs at 363 business schools, they found a 70% decline in application volume in 2018 for two-year full-time MBA programs in the United States.
Against the backdrop of falling enrollments in many universities, Richard Vedder, Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, noted in a recent Forbes.com article that “enrollment declines have been particularly acute in the industrial Midwest, but noticeable elsewhere as well”. He sees this as a national issue.
Bucking this trend however were some of the most prestigious universities in the country, where their issue seemed to be deciding who to turn away due to an abundance of applications.
Laying out some of the reasons why this may be happening Professor Vedder notes that “college degrees are becoming less effective as screening devices, information helping employers separate the likely most productive, bright and disciplined prospective workers from others. When nearly everyone has some sort of post-secondary credential and posts high grades (because of grade inflation), a degree from Harvard or the University of Michigan still is highly respected, so their graduates mostly get decent jobs.”
There it is – so many people have them, they no longer serve as the differentiating factor in a job application that they once did when far fewer people had them.
The Graduate Production Line
In Canada, speaking to CBC, Ken Coates, who teaches at the University of Saskatchewan and is Canada research chair in regional innovation said “When you flood the market with thousands upon thousands of degree-holding individuals, whose background looks pretty much the same, you have a serious problem,” he said.
Speaking of Bachelor of Arts degrees he went on to say “We’ve oversold the value of a university degree as a market entry, as opposed to an education. We’re finding from employers that the credential doesn’t carry the same weight and substance as it used to because the universities are basically driven by a bums-in-chair mentality.”
Basic Level of Competence
So, if everyone has them and they’re no longer useful in differentiating one person from another, we should just abandon them right?
Not necessarily. Many employers are using non-vocational degrees as evidence you have achieved what some of them call a basic level of competence. Would you pay $200k and 4 years of your life for a certificate stating you had a basic level of competence?
Thinking of it this way can certainly help focus the mind and get to the core of which degree programs you should consider, which you should not, and whether or not you should be looking at available alternatives.
In other words, when employers view degrees in this way, they are being used as a filter. Have a degree, go to the ‘Yes’ pile for closer inspection. Don’t have a degree, ‘No, thank you!”.
As long as employers continue playing that game, it can be argued that a degree is necessary just to get a foot in the door.
Job-Market Readiness v Education for Education’s Sake
Of course, there is an argument to be made that the actual value of a university education is that it creates the possibility for revolutionary thought throwing up new perspectives the value of which cannot be fully quantified in economic terms.
I think the classic liberal arts education of days gone by is a very good example of this. And there may be some institutions capable of offering a similar education today, however identifying those programs and institutions requires significant research and of course a robust understanding of why you seek such an education in the first place. If you don’t already know, it’s probably not for you.
Unfortunately, other courses exist in our modern University system that try to crouch under the same umbrella. Some of those courses have been noted as being unscientific and driven by ideology, seemingly doing no more than plant the seeds of social unrest and inspire militant activism. Know what you’re getting into and why.
Two words. Trade schools.
Choosing to go to trade school over college can be a viable option for a variety of reasons.
Generally speaking, the cost is significantly lower than university. There is less time spent in the classroom, the modules you’re taught are relevant to your chosen profession, salaries earned afterwards often compare well with Bachelor’s graduates when you factor in debt repayments, and often many trade schools offer job placement assistance to help you put your theoretical knowledge to work as quickly as possible.
Universities Aren’t The Only Way To Learn
In this day and age, you can access just about anything you want online, even retired Ivy League professors offering one-to-one lessons on specialist subjects via Skype!
Self-teaching has never been easier, with the vast repository of information available at your fingertips you can certainly educate yourself comprehensively at your own pace and at a fraction of the cost of a formal education.
Start-up your own business. Be a creator.
Before you commit to any form of further education, make sure you’ve done your research – not just into the institutions themselves, the professors, courses, campus community, and costs. You need to look beyond the graduation, and the likelihood you’ll be able to find work and excel in that chosen field.