Is Your Degree Really Worth Less Now? You Can Make Sure It’s Not By Being Distinctive.

Is Your Degree Really Worth Less Now

I’m sure you’ve heard people saying that a degree is worth less than it used to be. Maybe you believe that yourself.

I don’t think that’s quite right.

There are different types of value you can put on a degree:

  • How much your life is changed as a result;
  • How the extra experiences push you in different directions and/or challenge your attitudes;
  • Securing better earnings based on your higher qualification;
  • The amount potential employers respect the qualification.

You’ll have other values to add.

For now, let’s look at views on your qualification, graduate premium, commuter students, and employer attitudes.

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More About the Qualification than the Challenge?

In recent years, there have been more stories of academics under pressure to go easier on students.

Students are prone to feel unhappy if their grades suffer, especially when they’re encouraged to challenge themselves. Instead of working to improve, some students want top grades right from the start.

Some of this is anecdotal and some is based on average grades creeping up over time.

The academic side of university life is just one aspect of the experience. You’re almost certain to be challenged to some extent, and you’re bound to find other surprises along the way outside of the lecture theatre.

With more people graduating, the challenges can help you develop and achieve unexpected things.

Ultimately, the main person to rely on if you want to grow is yourself.

New experiences are what you need to bring greater depth to who you are and who you want to become. More and more people are graduating, so it’s crucial to focus on more than just the qualification.

Sometimes, getting top grades from the outset means you’re not being challenged enough.

If you’re going to demand anything, don’t make the demand an easy ride. If you do that, you can’t find so many ways to distinguish yourself. And the whole point is to be distinctive. More on that below…

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Value For Money & Graduate Premium

You can’t work out for sure how your future earnings will differ had you not gone to university. Unless you end up working in a role where your degree is an absolute requirement, you can only use guesswork to reach a conclusion.

An IFS study has found that, despite growing numbers of students over recent decades, relative wages have remained pretty steady. Graduates can still expect a premium compared to school-leavers without a degree.

At the moment, that is. The study doesn’t predict this good fortune can last and has found school-leavers catching up a fraction.

For now, it’s only a small change. The IFS concludes that it’s possible for some new changes to come to light that will keep the graduate premium rolling along, albeit for different reasons. On the other hand, the gap may continue to close. That’s a long time in the future, however, so you have no need to panic about that today.

Whatever the case, looking at trends over a period of time across the board isn’t the same as your personal story. It’s totally different to look back at a year, ten years, fifty years later, and make a personal value statement.

Who knows what a different life could have looked like? If the sole focus of going to university is on making more money, there are other ways to make far more money without setting foot on campus.

Many students go to university in hope of improving their future life prospects. A big chunk of that means looking for a better salary. There’s no escaping that.

Future prospects improve when you can be distinctive. More on that below…

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What About the Off-Campus Experience?

More people are commuting from home to get to university. Many won’t hang around campus so much or be so involved in the social and extra-curricular activities.

Traditional routes into higher education used to mean living on or around campus. So how can commuter students manage without missing out or feeling overwhelmed?

A piece on ChangeSU recognises that commuting students haven’t been considered differently to other students, even though many will have different needs:

“An unfortunately high number of commuter students felt isolated, either because of their age, or because of being a commuter; deeming most people to have become good friends from their time spent in halls; making it difficult for commuter students’ to make new friends.”

This is a problem. It’s not easy to replicate the campus experience when you’re commuting, so alternatives should be arranged and other social events planned to suit longer-distance students.

Students’ unions are making headway into these issues. But the work may take a while and is unlikely to suit all those who commute, given such varied circumstances.

To gain the most value without the same extra-curricular activities, one of the most effective situations would be to take on a degree that’s based on your current employment and career trajectory. When the degree really is the missing piece for getting from A to B, the other aspects of university experience won’t be quite so important anyway. Still a shame, but not with the same potential change in value.

When you still want (or need) the full experience package as a commuting student, find as many ways as possible to get a taste of as much as you can:

  • Ruthlessly schedule: Limit less important activities and only give them space if they don’t get in the way of university activities.
  • Seek out alternatives: Speak to your students’ union and find out what they have to offer by way of support and activities to suit your specific circumstances.
  • Create your own alternatives: If nothing else is on offer and your location is more of a problem than time is, create your own movement. Find out if other commuting students are looking for more. If your idea gains traction, it may be the success you need to differentiate yourself and stand out from the crowd after you graduate.

There’s value in showing commitment to getting the most out of your wider university experience despite having to commute. Make it part of your story once you graduate if you can. Highlighting your ability to triumph over struggle is a great way to make yourself distinctive as a graduate. More on that below…

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Employers Respecting Your Qualification

When employers judge your suitability for a job, what if they also judge your qualification?

Every now and then, stories pop up in the media that express surprise at how hard it is to find jobs. They mention Oxford and Cambridge graduates who can’t find work, despite applying for many jobs. Some don’t even get to interview stage.

So what’s going on?

All drama to one side, one thing has definitely changed.

Employers can no longer just filter candidates based on whether or not they’ve got a degree. In the past, fewer people went to university, so employers could easily limit the number of people for selection by looking for graduates only.

Today, with roughly half of school leavers going on to university, it is no longer possible to filter in this way. It’s easy to be inundated with candidates who all hold an undergraduate degree.

I’m sure you know how important it is to stand out in other ways. But how much of a lowdown have you got on how to do this?

You might think that everyone will become practically impossible to impress. The more people achieve, the more you have to do to stand out.

But that’s not true. It’s a mistake to think that you have to impress employers more than ever. You’re not superhuman.

So how do you make your play?

Instead of thinking more, think:

  • Specialist;
  • Niche;
  • Unique;
  • Narrative;
  • Individual.

In other words: You must be distinctive.

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Getting From Graduate to Distinctive

Standing out means being noticeable. When you’re memorable, you’ve got distinctive qualities right there. It’s got nothing to do about ticking every single box. It’s got everything to do with ticking a box that nobody else has. Find your unique.

Here are a few thoughts:

  • Show how you went the extra mile to achieve something;
  • Explain how you solved a problem and improved a situation;
  • Demonstrate what you have done in your subject (or in your chosen field of work) to set yourself apart. It could be a blog, a presentation, a talk, specialist volunteering, fundraising for something they’re invested in;
  • Describe how you accomplished a special feat despite your demanding situation. Show how you overcame those personal struggles.

Your job is to tell relevant, memorable stories. The focus isn’t on the qualifications or the institution you attended. The focus is on you and what you’ve done.

You can do all sorts at university. You’re probably already exploring what’s possible. While there’s still time, push yourself even further.

 

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What Does “Value” Mean Anyway?

You may be thinking by now that half of this isn’t related to your degree anyway. So where’s the direct value in that? Why should it count as part of the overall experience?

That’s where the confusion comes in. The more you think about tuition fees, the more danger there is in forgetting to look outside of the academic work.

Treat the fee as part of the whole experience, otherwise you’ll go mad working out how expensive every seminar is.

I’m not trying to justify how you feel about the money side of things. But it’s important to separate finances from your thoughts about the future. They both matter; they just don’t always gel together. When you try to link them up, it gets messy.

In other words, trying to work out the true return on investment of a degree is practically impossible. That’s why your job is to make the most of your time at university in as many ways possible.

Which areas are specifically paid for through your tuition fee?

It doesn’t matter.

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At university you’ve got access to so much at your fingertips. It’s there for the taking, so make use of the resources. Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that high tuition fees mean you must use all your time to ensure you graduate with a First Class Honours. University is an experience of experiences.

The more you embrace what’s on offer, the more you can excel when it’s time to show off your distinctive qualities.

Your degree has not lost value.

You just need to extract value differently to the way it was done in the past.

Look forward, not back.

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Why You Need To Think Beyond Your Grades to Make the Biggest Impact

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What worries you most at university…Your grade situation or your money situation?

9 in every 10 students are frequently concerned about grades, according to a survey by Jisc earlier this year. Nearly 8 in every 10 students worried about money.

They’re both big concerns, but grades are a worry for practically everyone.

Are grades a worry BECAUSE of fees and money matters? Have issues got worse as tuition fees have gone up?

It’s not like grades have ever been a shrug-fest, but think how much pressure you’re under today with £9k fees as part of the deal.

It’s why there’s such a push and pull around the “students as consumers” angle, even though it shouldn’t be part of your day-to-day academic work.

You can be overwhelmed about all sorts of things without realising. Not that long ago, you risked wasting a lot of your time if you didn’t perform as well as you’d like in your degree. Now the risk is wasted time and money.

And while you may only pay off the debt when your earnings are high enough, the money remains as a constant reminder. Some students want the best grades so they can justify that student loan balance.

Balance ‘productivity’ with ‘good enough’

I don’t believe it’s worth forcing a First Class Honours. I can’t see the value in working solely to get the best grade possible. Make it a serious factor, yes, but don’t turn it into your whole reason for being.

A top grade isn’t the surefire route to future success.

No matter how much you’d like to grab that First (or at least an Upper Second), make sure you pay attention to the rest of your experience at university too.

In other words, look beyond the A grade. It doesn’t matter if you get a B. A Second Class Honours isn’t going to destroy your chances of a bright future.

A sole focus on the academic work alone, however…That could be a mistake.

Frugaling has listed 10 reasons why you shouldn’t obsess over the highest marks. Basically, work hard, but make sure you’ve got time and energy for other commitments too.

There comes a time when you investment bigger and bigger amounts of time to smaller and smaller gains. The magic is to find a sweet spot that combines ‘productivity’ with ‘good enough’.

There are some study fundamentals:

  • Turn up and do the work;
  • Seek help when you get stuck;
  • Make it a priority.

That last point about priorities gets a bit more complex.

You’d think the study priority is about doing really well in acing tests and excelling in coursework.

It’s not. Your priority is finding your version of good enough.

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Priorities, Not Urgency

I’m not saying your grades don’t matter. I’m not telling you to take your work less seriously.

I’m pointing out that you have more than one priority. Studying is just one of those priorities.

And when you know several priorities need to be dealt with quickly, your issue is with urgency.

Urgency is different to prioritising, as I’ll explain in a moment.

Other priorities can include:

  • Work experience;
  • Achievements;
  • Extra-curricular activities;
  • Building a portfolio of work;
  • Investing in your future as a graduate long before you graduate.

These are priorities. Think of others that you’ve got. You need to juggle these.

Scheduling, deep work, practice, routines…There are ways to keep priorities in check so they don’t get in the way of each other, so they don’t overlap, and so they equal more than the sum of their parts.

If you only look at academic work while you’re a student, your other priorities will creep up on you. Deep into your final year (or worse, after you graduate), the other items I’ve listed above will become surprise priorities.

Avoid surprises as much as you possibly can. The more surprise priorities you have, the more urgent work you’ll have to do. At some point, it’ll become too much.

That’s why you need to pre-empt your priorities. Work out what your future needs are at the moment. Work toward those needs in small chunks while it’s not urgent.

Having nothing in place means you have too many urgent priorities. Stuff appears needing immediate action. Another recipe for overload.

Don’t get to that point. Take the time while there still is time. Make your priorities as relaxed as possible.

Imagine two people doing their coursework. One person spends small chunks of time over two weeks to get their coursework done. The other person does nothing until they pull an all-nighter just before the deadline.

Both people had coursework as a priority, but one of them let that priority become urgent.

In both cases, they could still pull off a top grade. In both cases, they may keep succeeding and land themselves a great job and fast-track an impressive portfolio.

But the all-nighter urgent priority case is leaving too much to chance.

Priorities in check

Putting it off, or always on?

If you’re prone to procrastination, Lifehacker suggests that it’s because you get an “impulsive tendency to do what feels easier, rather than the thing you know you should be doing”.

When you feel that problem, it’s worth checking out Wait But Why’s two-part series on beating procrastination:

[Yes, read both parts! I’ll wait…]

Once you’ve got past the procrastination, the next issue is getting those priorities in check.

On a casual level, you may think about your situation every now and then. You may be moved to take action over something random. Maybe not.

It’s time to face your priorities head on. Juggle them as you go so you don’t leave anything until the last minute. Or worse, until it’s far too late.

A number of relaxed priorities will help make a positive difference. A bunch of urgent priorities is far less forgiving.

When time is on your side, you really can relax to do more. That’s why it pays to face your priorities. When academic work is just one of the situations you’re dealing with, you continue to work hard, but not at the expense of everything else.

Keep all your priorities in check. Focus on both your present and future priorities. The importance of grades will become less rigid. And you may find that less pressure leads to a happier run on those grades anyway. Win-win.

And that’s why the all-nighter is a much riskier option than small, consistent doses of work, spread out over the allotted time.

Instead of the all-nighter, what if you want to spend every waking moment on your study? My suggestion is to step back for a moment and take a wider focus on your other priorities. Why are you studying without any other activity? What are your future plans? Are you plans likely to work out if you ignore everything except study?

If you’re prone to either procrastination or perfectionism, it’s time to bring your other priorities into the mix. Don’t let those priorities sit at the side and become urgent.

Instead, relax through all that you do. It can make a huge impact on your life, your grades, and your health.

Whatever your situation, you need to think beyond your grades.

Next time, I’ll tell you why your degree isn’t worth any less now than it used to be. And I’ll help show what you can do to be distinctive.

When Academia and Pokémon Collide

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Pointless can be serious. You can go a long way with pointless.

Look at Pokémon Go. It’s a game.

But it’s a game that sent Nintendo’s market value up to nearly double what it was a week before. It passed Sony’s market value, which wouldn’t have been expected before the Pokémon craze hit.

Pointless can be serious. You can go a long way with pointless.

Even if it starts off as a joke.

Pokémon Go started off as an April Fool, when Google put a video out about a Pokémon Challenge.

Earlier this year, a Durham student submitted a dissertation about the Kardashian family.

It started off as a bit of a laugh too.

Eliza Cummings said, “I wanted to pick [a topic] I would never get bored of”.

And despite having some detractors, Cummings ran with it and took it seriously. Serious fun.

Now she has graduated from Durham… With a first class honours.

None of this is as crazy as it sounds. If you pick a topic that won’t bore you, it’s much easier to find new angles, to keep pushing on with the work, and taking pride in what you do.

Not so pointless now. You can go a long way with pointless.

Understanding the dissertation is serious work, but adding fun and interest is similar to how some academics would view their work. They take matters seriously, yet enjoy what they do. It’s easy to find academics who are enthusiastic about their subject and the specialisms they’re looking into.

I once submitted an essay about writers who viewed the industrial revolution negatively, but instead gave an argument that they were likely in favour of the industrial revolution.

Why?

Because it was fun.

I had to put effort in, because the argument had to make sense. I needed to show the working behind it.

So before you see nothing more than a story about ridiculous dissertations, consider the further possibility behind the subject.

If someone happened to write about the Kardashians for a laugh, they might get bored anyway. The academic side would become a drain.

Cummings may have seen the funny side, but she clearly saw the serious side too.

When I studied postcolonialism, the class were allowed to choose one text to study. I asked if we could study South Park: The Movie. It had recently come out and I thought it would be fun AND relevant AND topical.

So our tutor said yes. Half the class were delighted and had fun with it. The other half thought we were being ridiculous.

All I know is that I was happy to have a laugh, because I knew there was a good reason to take it seriously.

Learning requires emotion. If there’s no fun involved, you may be missing out. Get emotional with your study!

Where could you choose to have some fun with your work today?

How to Become a Professional, Future-Proof Graduate

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When you’re stressed out and too busy to do all the things, what’s the first thing you would drop?

Students shun extra-curricular activities in favour of good grades, according to a GetRevising poll. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they felt pressured by others to drop activities so they could perform better in exams and coursework.

When worried parents tell me their child puts professional projects first, they think it’s a bad thing.

Who is right? Those who ignore the activities or those who prioritise them?

How about understanding priorities across the board?

Priorities do change and you need to keep in mind WHY you’re doing all the things you’ve chosen to do. If it’s not good use of your time and you spend too much time on frivolous activities and fun, drop something!

But when you’re developing important new skills and building a portfolio of great work, why would you want to drop that?

You want the best grade possible. You also want to spend enough time doing new things. I’d choose a 2:1 and relatable experiences over a First and little else to showcase.

I’ll tell you what this DOES NOT mean:

  • Doing new things for the sake of new;
  • Too many new activities all at once;
  • No engagement with study because you’re spending all your time on other work.

What I DO mean is working toward one or two targeted activities that you can capitalise on.

Whatever ‘capitalise’ means for you, that is a big deal. I’m not just talking money, but experience, relationships, learning, and so on.

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Looking beyond the degree

You’re paying for the academic side of university. You may think non-academic ventures could be conducted some other time. But university is a great place to encounter these frameworks.

What you get from university is far more than what you actually pay for. Not everything grows on fees.

Maybe this is a contextual problem. Perhaps the ‘degree’ should be packaged as more than the degree. Pathik Pathak suggests:

“I’d argue that the best way for universities to foster borderless skills is by embedding opportunities for entrepreneurship into a student’s experience of higher education. To do so, university curricula will need to evolve to fuse disciplinary knowledge with applications outside the classroom, fostering an appetite for continuous learning where skills are constantly reconfigured to match the size and shape of new problems.”

Universities could do more than extol the virtues of university life beyond study.

By bringing more into play for students, professional development can become an intrinsic choice.

Would you feel more at ease if you could make extra-curricular activities part of your academic intention while you’re in higher education?

University life should continue embracing learning for the sake of learning. Future employability is important for many, but shouldn’t overtake learning at its core.

At the same time, by introducing optional modules and activities with inherent industry benefit, these elements can be part of the ‘degree process’ even when they’re not explicitly part of your subject.

This matters for employers as well as students. A Guardian editorial last year makes the case:

“…a fifth of graduates are not in graduate-level employment three years after leaving university, employers complain that they still struggle to recruit people with the skills and qualifications they need, and the next generation of final-year school students will be looking with dismay at some universities’ student satisfaction ratings while contemplating the burden of leaving university with a debt of at least £27,000. And from next September, the grants that supported the poorest students and have done so much to widen access are being replaced with loans.”

This is why you need to make the most of your time at university.

Everything you do makes a difference. It’s not worth waiting to get your act into gear just before (or worse, after) you graduate. The time to strike is right now.

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Stories and big pictures

What are the two or three big items on your agenda for impact? This is more about planning than passion.

You don’t always need to name-drop big companies on your CV. You need a narrative.

Build the story of you and tell it from the rooftops.

More could be done to help you do this. Tristram Hooley states:

“What is lacking is access to the career education, advice and guidance that might help young people to actually engage with it and make sense of it.”

If you can’t make sense of things yourself, how do you make anything clear to employers?

It’s no wonder grades get precedence over everything else. It sounds right, it makes sense, and it’s what you pay for. But it can also be limiting, misunderstood, and wrong in some cases.

There’s a difference between struggling with academic work and spending less time on academic work. Struggling needs urgent treatment and support, while consciously limiting time is a subjective matter.

I’ve seen some students plan out their moves like a game of chess. They are several moves ahead and playing the long game. Study only suffers a little, but the payoff is much bigger in the grand scheme of things. The pros outweigh the cons by a wide margin.

A big picture attitude is hard to fake. You don’t fall into it by accident. It needs work and willpower. But it’s worth making a few small changes so you can focus on the outcomes you want from student and graduate life.

In other words, current priorities have to tie in with future priorities, otherwise you have a mismatch.

Without a match, you get into trouble when you reach the next point on your roadmap. You realise too late that your priorities don’t reflect the person you wanted to be after graduation.

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Separate to shape

One way to begin shaping your narrative and honing your professional persona could be to separate the extra-curricular and the professional.

I tend to call anything outside the degree as ‘extra-curricular’. This could be a mistake.

A survey asked recruiters what they are looking for in graduates. Recruiters (and the survey) saw ‘professional experience’ as separate to ‘extra-curricular activities’.

That’s not to say you can’t get professional experience from clubs and societies. But it does highlight the need to tell your story effectively. Especially when activities aren’t always considered so important by employers.

Over 40% of recruiters want to see professional experience from graduate applicants. Yet a mere 10% were interested in extra-curricular activities.

To impress recruiters, emphasise the business qualities of your experiences, wherever they occurred.

That means highlighting your achievements and framing what you’ve done through examples and a narrative flow. You’ll impress more when you frame your achievements in the context of professional development.

Language makes a difference. And story captures more than a list of facts.

At the same time, recruiters also said in the survey that cover letters are the least interesting thing in their search for candidates.

What, no cover letters!?

Isn’t that where you can bring your story out most?

Don’t let the mixed message confuse you. I wouldn’t suggest you abandon cover letters yet.

Just make sure to work on story and flow in your CV and other supporting documents too. At the least, give examples of your skills through professional examples.

And find ways to express them in something other than a list format. A short sentence to provide detail of each of your most important skills may be all you need to set yourself apart.

Better still, build your online portfolio and provide access to your achievements in different formats. Not every role out there comes about through a CV or application form.

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Keep refining your story

You may still be uncertain whether to focus all your time on study, or whether to dedicate a bit more time on building a professional portfolio. The survey did find that UK employers are more likely to focus on grades than recruiters elsewhere in the world. Yet that still only accounted for less than a seventh of respondents.

You’ll always find some people who look at a single metric and won’t deviate. And some applications slip through because a computer rejects a certain piece of information. But these are not the norm and you don’t know the criteria anyway. Unknowns like these shouldn’t sway your long-term priorities.

Keep refining your story and keep developing your skillset. Although your degree results are important, they are just one part of the bigger picture.

Consider all your priorities and make sure they match with each other.

The second part of TheUniversityBlog’s tagline says, “Be the student you deserve to be“. To do that you must go way beyond academic work.

That’s why the first part of the tagline says, “Life shouldn’t stop when you study“.