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.

Graduates and the language of jobs

Is getting a job more important than being employable?

Martin Edmondson, CEO of Gradcore and Graduates Yorkshire, has found that graduates and employers may be looking at careers from different perspectives.

photo by Zach Klein

photo by Zach Klein

In preparation for the Graduate Employment Conference 2012 (#GEC12), I’ve asked Martin whether students and graduates viewed ’employability’ differently to employers and, if so, how parties could move closer to a shared understanding:

“The whole of the Gradcore business concept is built on improving the understanding and interactions between organisations, universities and graduate. Therefore we take this issue pretty seriously.

“We have recently finished our second running of the ‘Big Graduate Survey’ in Yorkshire, and have doubled our responses this year, with 3800 graduates responding. One of the free-text response questions asked what they wanted from their careers services. Whilst we haven’t yet had time to process the 1400 comments, our clever survey software can produce a wordcloud from the responses, with the biggest word being most commonly mentioned. The word that emerged was ‘Jobs’ and not ‘Employability’. This does not mean that employability is not important, it just means that the head down graduate view of employability can be encapsulated in ‘help me get a job’.”

When I speak with graduates, language does turn to matters of ‘looking for a job’, ‘applying for jobs’. ‘Employability’ isn’t a term frequently mentioned. And with a lot of advice suggesting that graduates tailor each application to the particular job, perhaps the focus moves to being employable for every individual job, rather than growing an understanding of what makes a person employable in an overall sense. There is no single answer, but there are certainly common themes.

Even common themes can prove difficult, as Martin explains:

“From the employer perspective there is as much disagreement about what constitutes employability as there is in Universities. One of the most commonly cited components of employability cited by employers is ‘commercial awareness’. Unfortunately when you ask 5 different employers what commercial awareness is, you will get five different answers. In our employability development courses we have taken this on board and now coach graduates in what we have categorised as the 5 key elements of commercial awareness. Maybe even that is too complex, as I recently met a chamber of commerce president  who insisted that her members knew graduates had skills but simply wanted them to get better at being ‘nice people to work with’.

“As with all things, ascribing a single view to an imaginary homogenous group of graduates, universities and employers is dangerous, but these are real life examples that illustrate the gaps that need bridging. I have found fairly consistently is that in the interconnection of businesses of graduates, common and key factors are culture and values.”

Culture and values suggest an ongoing desire to extend understanding of a wide range of issues. These are not so much skills, but a sense of empathy, engagement, and a forward-facing attitude that’s ready for change.

As Harold Jarche recently said, “Given that 65% of todays’ students will end up in jobs that don’t exist today, we know work will change significantly in the next decade. The network economy is changing everyone’s business, and will significantly affect education and training as well.”

Martin explains that as HE continues to move toward marketisation, students will increasingly consider the link between fees and graduate employment outcomes. He says, “more than ever before, universities need to produce employable graduates (whatever they think that means)”.

The ‘whatever they think that means’ part is important too. Without linking up the views of students, universities, and companies, there is a danger that thoughts will be a confusion of irrelevant assumptions. Without listening to each other, how would students be best placed for the jobs they desire and how would employers be able to find the right fit?

As for universities, how would they keep on board a large number of their students ongoing? While the purpose of university is not solely to train people up for employment, many people attend university in order to help their future prospects. If the links between study and future employability are not forthcoming, what then?

CIHE’s David Docherty suggests, “[Universities] need internships, placements, short-work bursts, and embedded doctorates to help them develop ‘fused graduates'”. Think of it, perhaps, as university beyond university.

Martin Edmondson left me with a number of questions that he sees as important for each group to consider their position:

  • Is one of the issues in student engagement around employability the word itself?
  • How can business adapt to and embrace the qualities brought by generation Y graduates?
  • How can graduates accelerate their understanding of different workplaces so they make themselves attractive to employers?
  • How can culture and values be harnessed to build understanding and connectivity between employers and graduates?
  • How can Universities act as a bridge between the two groups, and develop ones understanding of the other?

These are important questions. It is up to all parties to ensure graduates can shine after they have been at university.

Change is ongoing, which gives much room for innovation. As a recent Harvard Business Review piece asks, “Isn’t real innovation supposed to blow through thresholds to create something of new value?”

So, who’s up for blowing through some thresholds?

Edulinks – Week ending 20 May 2011

This week, NUS and CBI jointly launched a guide to employability skills. The publication, Working Towards Your Future, is definitely worth a download.

As the NUS/CBI guide was released, engineering consultancy, Atkins, called on universities to help students more with employability skills. Good timing, eh?

In the US, there’s a lot of talk about bubbles in higher education. Is it worth studying for a degree? Is HE too expensive now? Weighing in on the debate are The Economist, Slate, and NPR. Will the UK ever suffer from ‘bubble’ worries?

A student at LSE argues that fees of £8,000 may not be as helpful to disadvantaged students as a £9,000 pricetag. Sound like a strange argument? Then read on!

Students are rushing to get into investment banking in the hope of a big salary, according to High Fliers Research. They also report that confidence in the graduate job market has improved and that over a third of finalists made early job applications. Graduate applications in the public sector has seen a drop, however.

With improved confidence comes bigger expectations. For the first time in three years, the expected (hoped for) starting salary has increased to an average of £22,600. Students expect to be earning nearly £40k after five years and over %15 interviewed expect a salary of more than £100,000 by the age of 30! Perhaps we’ll see some of them starring in the apprentice in the coming years…

Make the most of your £9,000 year at university

I’ve argued before that fees themselves don’t act as a deterrent to university, since higher education is seen by many as the only feasible route to career success. There is much more to higher education, but it’s hard to deny that a large number of people take the HE path in the hope of improving future prospects.

The Independent asked students and graduates if they would have paid £9k per year. That question isn’t so important right now, but some of the answers given are definitely worth exploring.

photo by mattwi1s0n
£9k fees? What say you? – photo by mattwi1s0n

Nottingham graduate Luke Martin puts the student experience into perspective:

“The ‘university life’ is a deeply individual one and it’s a shame to imagine it simply as a (very expensive) commodity, when for most it’s an all encompassing and enjoyable lived experience.”

You have a wealth of opportunity at university. It’s easy to imagine that a degree is the most important end product of your study. In reality, many other actions over the years can surpass that seemingly crucial grade.

Qualifications are certainly important, but they’re no replacement for other achievement and personal experience.

Luke Martin adds, “I suspect that I took a lot out of it that can’t be measured in pounds”. While you can’t put a monetary value on everything you do, you should attempt to translate as many of your actions into meaningful examples that others can understand.

Build upon your long-term plan. How far have you looking into the future? You don’t know what’s awaiting you around the corner, but that’s not an excuse to abandon forward planning.

It’s all too easy to see graduation as a million miles away. Even if you think it’s approaching fast, it’s just as easy to think the job search starts when you’ve finished studying. But it doesn’t.

Your search has already started. If you’re at uni to improve your prospects, every minute is potential time to be winning. Some ideas that are quick to start, quick to implement, but require a long time to make a mark:

  • Start a blog: Blogs almost never achieve overnight success. Three posts do not make a must-read blog. A consistent effort, however, can yield results. There is no sure-fire way of reaching a huge audience and/or huge respect, but you’re guaranteed not to reach it if you don’t try at all.
  • Build online network profiles aimed at your chosen career/job route: Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like aren’t overnight success stories (unless you’re Charlie Sheen). Thankfully, you only need short, committed bursts of activity to make a difference over time. But do commit to it, otherwise you’re profile risks going stale.
  • Get working on a career RIGHT NOW: Ask yourself, “What can I do straight away to move closer to a role in X industry?” If you had a free reign to work on whatever project you wanted, what would you choose? If you aren’t already doing that now, what’s stopping you? Take your unexecuted ideas and start bringing them to life.
  • Volunteer: There are plenty opportunities to volunteer. It doesn’t have to be charity work and it needn’t be in a formal job situation. Giving up your time to support a cause and to enhance your own experience will look great ongoing. However, there’s no point in volunteering simply to look good on paper. It doesn’t work. Your aim is to provide value and enthusiasm. You may even build some amazing contacts, memories and future opportunities in the process.
  • Seek out a mentor: We learn from the actions of others from birth. You may already know someone who you respect and could learn a lot from. If you do, why not tell them how you feel they could help you with a bit of guidance. They will likely feel flattered and be delighted to spend some time with you. And the worst they can do is say no!
    If you don’t know anyone personally, Forbes has an 8-step plan to find a mentor and a slideshow with the steps too.

After you graduate, your overall experience is worth more than just the degree. One graduate suggests: “We’re left in a world where a degree is just an expensive, bog-standard qualification.”

While I don’t agree in such harsh tones, it’s true that a degree, in isolation, is no longer enough to secure the employment of your choosing. You must put the legwork in to use your degree and the skills you developed, because the piece of paper isn’t going to make a big noise on your behalf.

An increasing number of graduates find it insanely difficult to secure suitable employment. However, it is no reason to wash your hands of higher education. In a world of ‘quick fixes’ and ‘instant access‘, you’ve still got to play the slow game for some things, frustrating as that may be.

I’ll leave the last words to KCL graduate, Daniel Smith. No matter what the cost, we’re all different and it’s in your own interests to make your experience worthwhile, amazing, and relevant to who you want to be:

“Each student will have a different experience to the next and just because everyone has a degree does not mean there is an equal starting point when looking to start a career after university. In a fundamental sense though, a degree is worth any amount of money, if it’s something you’ve always wanted to aspire to.”