Is it worth it (financially) to go to uni?

6 02 2010

As someone who employs new graduates, I wonder about this question a lot. It’s a popular one for blog posts and media stories; Penelope Trunk is firmly on the “con” side of education for education’s sake. The BBC offers some rather more unconventional reasons (you might meet a spouse with good middle-class earning potential!), but, with costs and graduate unemployment going up both in the US and UK, and places available likely to face a crunch, I think it’s worth considering soberly just what you’re likely to get out of it.

I was prompted to make this post by this Times Online article, which argues that so-called “Mickey Mouse degrees” like golf course management and brewing are in fact a smart bet, leading to profitable careers because they directly prepare you for a particular sector. The article also trots out the “a degree is worth X thousand pounds over a lifetime” figures. As usual, the top-earning degrees are quite comfortably medicine and law, with engineering and modern languages tailing behind by some way.

But I can’t help wondering whether this actually proves anything, really. The single greatest predictive factor of success – both in university and in a career – is intelligence. Medicine and law courses are highly sought-after. They’re immensely challenging careers, intellectually. Universities have enough competition for places to set the entry bar extremely high, and pick and choose who they accept, which makes the degree, in some respects, just a “surrogate marker” for intelligence. If these courses were effectively open entry, I wonder if the graduate earning potential would be somewhat diluted. It certainly helps, though, that vocational courses directly give you the skills you’ll need on graduation, rather than instilling “soft skills”. While I want to hire, and work with, people who can think intelligently and critically, I’m yet to come across a uni that does much, in its courses, to instil the kinds of soft skills that are crucial when first starting work, and one of my key jobs as a graduate manager is to give them a crash course in these skills, and quickly. The social and interpersonal skills tested by any job are very different from the skills imparted by your average undergraduate course.

I suspect that, on top of the vocational nature of some of these “Mickey Mouse courses” (and I don’t agree with that name) also comes from the fact that the graduates on them are determined and focused enough to dedicate themselves to a course in something very specific. I further suspect that this determination and focus starts before the graduate begins the degree. In the absence of a study that controls for intelligence, it’s hard to tell how much is really added by the degree itself. But my advice for seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, based on my experience at work, would be this: If you aren’t sure what you want to do after university, and you aren’t passionate about any particular subject, and you aren’t sure you’ll get into a top university – strongly consider working for a year or two, and thinking about it.

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