How Do You Value a Degree?

What does your degree mean to you?

Your answer will depend on where you are in life right now. A first year, a final year, a recent graduate, halfway to retirement? How you view your degree changes over time.

Another influencing factor is why you chose to study in the first place. Was it to further a chosen career, in hope that you could earn more with a degree, or was it simply a subject you had a deep interest in?

It’s no surprise that many students have at least a passing interest in better career prospects from a degree. This angle comes under question all the time.

Frank Field MP has obtained data from the Office for National Statistics, finding that more than a quarter of graduates were paid less than the hourly gross wage of £11.10 paid to non-graduates with an apprenticeship.

From one perspective, it suggests that a degree isn’t the only route to the best pay. You may even think it represents bad value.

But that’s not the full picture. Money is not the only goal people strive toward. If money was all you cared about, university may have felt a waste of time in the first place. Several years without moving explicitly toward cash? It’s a long game that you may have run out of patience over.

(photo by ashley rose) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

(photo by ashley rose) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The huge focus on tuition fees leads to much discussion on value for money and subsequent returns on investment. It’s understandable.

For some, a degree is a necessary hoop to jump through before moving on to something else. However:

“The value of paper degrees lies in a common agreement to accept them as a proxy for competence and status, and that agreement is less rock solid that the higher education establishment would like to believe.” – Harvard Business Review, The Degree Is Doomed

That is the view of Michael Staton, a partner at education-focused venture capital firm, Learn Capital. Staton argues that employers will find “more efficient and holistic ways for applicants to demonstrate aptitude and skill”, which will subsequently lead to devaluation of the degree.

I don’t think this will happen across the board, but I expect some firms to find new methods of selection. Many graduate programmes already invest in their own selection processes, so their reliance on a good degree is potentially more a filter than anything else. If selection processes can be made more cheaply and without the need to filter by degree results, it will no doubt be considered as a viable option.

The world changes and things move on, but the degree is not dead. It’s not doomed any time soon. Higher education will need to change with the times, but I can’t see a game-changing revolution putting a sudden stop to HE as we know it.

So despite claims over earnings and employers, I still champion university life. I have long said that your experience shouldn’t be solely about gaining that piece of paper.

A basic attitude misses too much. It’s crucial to focus on the bigger picture to make an impact. The degree is no longer standalone; it’s one part of what shapes you. The resources and connections available at university can help you achieve so much, even when it has nothing to do with the academic side of uni life.

I’m happy people have alternative choices to university, barring some specialist and technical careers. The degree is not doomed just because aspirations can be realised in other ways.

What does your degree mean to you? When I asked at the start of this post, I said that your answer can change. Perhaps it’s changed between then and now. In a matter of moments your view can move as a result of reading a blog post, or having a conversation, or being selected for something unexpected.

University provides many moments that can open your eyes. That’s why I’m not about to throw my hands up in defeat.

And, as Tom Hay says here:

Weigh up the pros and cons and make the most of your decisions, from major choices like whether or not to go to university, to small choices like which social event to go to. You’ll have ups and downs, but we all do. Don’t dwell on how things could have been in an alternative universe.

Look forward, not behind. Seek value now.

2 comments

  1. How do you feel that international students factor into this? They seem to be ‘propping up’ quite a few universities now financially. Are they also looking just for a piece of paper or is the experience the true value?

    In my working with international students, it seems to be a mix depending on where they are coming from. In some cases, the degree is a ticket to a better job or to maintain their social standing. In other cases, it’s an excuse to get away from Mum & Dad for a few years.

    Thanks for the article!

    1. Given the generally greater cost implications, international students should make many considerations before embarking upon such a decision. There are many reasons they would value the experience and there are great opportunities to be had. But if it’s just to get away from parents for a few years, it’s worth considering how else that goal can be achieved!

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