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University degrees: worth it or nah?

As student debts mount and Covid-19 restrictions halt any attempt to have a “normal” university experience, it’s fair to wonder if having a degree will be worth it.

Is university still a better investment than going straight into the workplace? With over half of young people now attending university, the value of a degree becomes increasingly questionable. In years gone by, a degree was considered a golden ticket to employment. However, a recent Edinburgh Ecology graduate summed up every students’ worst fears.

She told The Student “I’ve got two degrees and I still can’t get a job”. This graduate may not be alone; as for each graduate job now, there is an average of 44 applicants.

If this is the reality many graduates face, would they have been better off not going to university at all? Traineeships provide practical on-the-job experience while being able to earn money.
So, it’s easy to see why it is an attractive option.

Reflecting on her decision to attend university, the same graduate goes on to mention “it probably would’ve been more useful to do a traineeship in environmental stuff, and build my way up”.

For those favouring practical experience, a college may also be a better choice. One ex-Dundee student described his decision to drop out of his engineering degree.

After finding “it wasn’t the practical course [he] thought it would be” he decided that a two-year college course would be a better fit. The hands-on approach that college could offer, as well as the shorter duration, meant this was the right decision for him.

Both traineeships and college courses provide the opportunity to enter the workplace earlier, often with more industry experience than a university can offer.

Although they could put you ahead of those who have spent four years studying, it doesn’t mean that attending university is not worthwhile. While some industries put more value on experience, for many jobs, it’s essential to have a degree.

Moreover, graduate labour market statistics show that those with degrees are more likely to get a job. In 2019, 87.5% of graduates were in employment compared to 72% of non-graduates.

Degrees are incredibly valuable in high-skilled industries: less than a quarter of non-graduates were in high-skilled employment versus two-thirds of graduates in 2019.

So, although a degree may not be your golden ticket to finding a job, it certainly helps – at least in some industries.

Finding a job isn’t the only worry plaguing students; for many, it’s wondering whether their financial investment in a university will pay off.

This year, in particular, many feel they’re seeing a disparity between the money their paying and the quality of education they’re receiving.

With tuition fees and a maintenance loan taken into account, many students will end up owing over £50,000 by the end of their degree. Even for Scottish students, whose tuition fees are paid for by the Scottish government, the cost of living in the city still adds up.

Despite this, having a degree might pay off in the end. As well as being more likely to be employed, graduates earn more, on average, than non-graduates. Although taking out a student loan each year may feel like haemorrhaging money, government statistics show that it is still an investment in future earnings.

In 2019, the median salary for graduates was £34,000, while non-graduates were earning £25,000. On top of this, the loan only begins to be paid back after graduates earn at least £25,000. If it is not paid back in 30 years, the rest is forgiven.

If students still want to gain more from their financial investment in a university, the best thing they can do is aim high. Graduates who leave with a 2:1 or a first earn 7-9% more than those graduating with lower grades, a study from the Centre for Economic Performance shows, which means that higher classifications can make your degree more worthwhile.

Having a high-level degree doesn’t just aid your future earnings; it may also help your prospects of getting a job. Stephen Isherwood, head of the Institute of Student Employers, reports that two-thirds of graduate recruiters impose a 2:1 cut off, meaning that they see having an upper second class degree as the minimum requirement for employment.

Of course, there are many benefits to attending university, aside from employment and financial gain. University is a unique and valuable experience that, unlike the economic value, cannot be quantified in numbers.

Even amid a pandemic student life instils essential life skills, “I definitely do feel like I’ve grown since coming to uni because I think there are so many new challenges that you didn’t have at school,” a current Edinburgh student said.

“I’ve gained so much confidence and met people who were similar to me,” said another. For both of these students, their development at university went beyond making themselves more employable. So, it’s important to remember that people attend university for a wide range of reasons. However, one can develop these attributes outside of university through traineeships, college courses, and other university alternatives.

A degree certainly can be worthwhile for students aiming for a job that requires one – if not, then starting in a traineeship or college course could be a better option. However, having a degree means being more likely to be employed and potentially earning more, especially if you receive a 2:1 or higher. The jury is still out, either way.

Image: Editors at The Student