value

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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How Can Higher Education Best Provide Value (For Money)?

How Can Higher Education Best Provide Value (For Money)?

Value for money is a pesky thing. Students, even seasoned graduates, will be hard pressed to assess the precise value of their degree. What you get from your university experience goes far beyond campus and can take many years to realise. The potential benefits are ongoing.

And while some graduates gain immediate benefit from their degree study, others don’t see much to boast over until much later in life.

If value is a subjective work in progress over a long period of time, are students in a position to understand and assess the full picture to gaining value for money? Getting the desired grade is possibly preferred over getting challenged academically. By this token, is value for money too subjective on too many levels?

This is uncomfortable at a time when policy makers must consider the needs of students from not only an educational perspective, but also a consumer one. Perhaps it’s no wonder that institutions haven’t had much incentive to innovate further in teaching. Too much risk for not enough apparent gain.

I am a big fan of seeing universities highlight their unique traits, rather than attempting to speak for everyone. They can innovate to help students tell a convincing story that shapes future choices and success. In doing so, more graduates will retain positive links with their alma mater. The more I have thought about it, the more I see the strength in continuing bonds between an institution and its past students. More can always be done regarding this.

Finding Where Value Comes From

While universities should find every opportunity to promote access to resources and exclusive services as part of the student package, what happens outside of the university’s control is also a vital part of ensuring students see value. Perceptions that anything outside the academic work is merely circumstantial and outside the remit of fees is missing the point, regardless of how true that is. After all, policy has brought the situation to this stage, which somewhat forces matters in this direction. As long as this continues to be the case, institutions must work within the framework around them.

Essentially, fees and loans are difficult (certainly in their current guise) to link with improving and building innovation in teaching. Students already find value for money a difficult concept to grasp and are more likely to question value than to assume it. In effect, universities are not best placed to take risky leaps in teaching, regardless of how it should benefit students. Even if these innovations are made and are a resounding success in an institution’s eyes, will students see things the same way? Failure to translate at just one stage in the process could be dangerous for the provider implementing the strategy:

“…students are often not equipped to provide an informed and meaningful response to research about innovative pedagogy, especially when it involves emerging technology.” – [Considering the Smartphone Learner]

Many innovative strategies have already been made and 2012 fee reforms have brought “minimal innovation in teaching and learning“. So while the higher education sector is one which does not stand still when it comes to innovation, we should expect a slow and steady progression. Do we look to MOOCs and private providers for the latest exciting developments? Yes and no. Changes come through from all directions, but don’t assume the next big thing is a guaranteed success, nor the game-changing sector-reshaper that some hype up in hope.

Perhaps we can look at the NMC Horizon report at what they predict the future to be. However, as the regularly on-point Stephen Downes and Audrey Watters have already said, the Horizon report doesn’t look back to previous predictions and the new predictions appear to have a lot of emphasis on popular media ideas of what’s to come.

Finding it Difficult to Innovate Further

Let’s imagine for a moment that the heads of one university decide to make bold moves to separate themselves from the rest (even popular predictions, perhaps!) and turn the diversity knob to 11. They’ll soon hit a quality assurance snag since “processes are usually connected to demands for accountability, [so] risk-taking is likely to suffer in favour of ‘playing it safe'” [Source]. Guess what? Management soon decide to use the term ‘innovation’ to mean ‘better’. Much easier, that way.

In this example, I say ‘heads of one university’. Does institution matter to innovation? See point 33 of HEFCE’s Business Plan for 2015-2020:

“We are looking to develop innovative approaches that are risk-based, proportionate, affordable and low-burden. Any new arrangements must build on established strengths and good practice, and reflect the values and cultures of higher education. In fulfilling our statutory responsibilities with regard to quality assessment we have always relied on institutions’ own robust quality assurance systems, as part of co-regulation. We will continue to do so.”

What is the scope of innovative approaches that are risk-based, proportionate, affordable and low-burden? Would these initiatives be the same regardless of institution, or would impact vary? Are established strengths institution-based or indicative of the wider HE sector? This all makes a difference.

Another variable is the scope you give to innovation. How broadly does it reach? According to Graham Gibbs in HEA’s ‘Implications of “Dimensions of Quality” in a market environment‘:

“Funding for innovation, both within institutions and by national bodies, should be targetted on programmes rather than on modules and on the involvement of entire programme teams rather than on individuals.” – p.10

All in all it appears that some change could be made:

  • In analytics;
  • Through greater recognition of teaching;
  • Toward more general targets as opposed to more focused areas.

But we have already seen that much innovation has already been taking place and it does not mean that students gain the ability to grasp value for money through these new practices.

Finding the Right Perception of Value

Which brings us back to consumerist attitudes to higher education. Andrew McGettigan covers this well in The Great University Gamble. He states that HE is “not currently amenable to normal consumer experience…the benefits of the product often do not become clear during ‘consumption’ but only later, well after study has finished“.

This is echoed by Joanna Williams:

“As students are not, by definition, in possession of all the specific content to be covered they are perhaps not best placed to pass pedagogical judgement. Instead, many students equate value for money with contact time with teaching staff…Value for money may also be equated with success: if students are rated highly by their lecturers they are gaining value for money, if they receive low marks, they are not. ‘The majority of complaints were about academic status, i.e. students’ degree passes’ (Garner 2009).” [p.174]

Even when you put these arguments to one side, another challenging question arises.

Are students comparing value for money between different institutions?

This isn’t particularly feasible. The inability to compare value is problematic, since there is no way of telling whether a resounding success would have been many times more successful had a person attended a different university as a student. How would their life have differed? Also, what would the definition of ‘value for money’ be in this case? Value isn’t just subjective, it’s entirely hypothetical in nature. The only comparison that can be made is between the money spent on a degree (plus other costs) and the subsequent monetary return made that would not have been possible without that degree.

That’s why value for money in education is so pesky. And the perception of value changes over time. It’s valuable when we say so, on our terms. And if someone begs to differ, they are well within their rights to do so for that very reason.

What does value for money look like to you?

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.

Is University Worth £9,000 a Year?

The Telegraph recently asked students if their first year was worth £9,000.

This type of question is hard to answer at such an early stage. Wait until the end of the degree and answers won’t be much clearer then.

Value doesn’t conclude at the end of an academic year. Nor does it conclude when you finish studying.

In the nature of ‘students as consumers’, imagine buying a brand new car. After you’ve traveled on your first petrol tank worth of fuel, could you say if the car was worth the price? What about after one year of driving it?

The questions seem confused. How do you know if the car is worth it? Value doesn’t conclude until the car is run into the ground, you sell it, or it’s written off. Only when you put all the factors together can you get a reasonable assessment of value.

Value for money on one tank? And the fuel costs extra! (photo by Images_of_Money)

Value for money on one tank? And the fuel costs extra! (photo by Images_of_Money)

For a degree, value is even harder to assess. No wonder there’s so much discussion around it!

The Telegraph states, “58.4 per cent felt their first year wasn’t worth the £9000”. The problem is in understanding why. The answer is based on a general feeling. Some students will be offended paying a penny for their pursuit of education, while others will sense value in the long haul, whatever the cost.

Neither are necessarily right or wrong. Limited knowledge of what’s to come in their future (and in the wider world) prevents anyone from giving an accurate account of value. Motivation drives how you feel about many things, including value. But motivation is a complicated issue. There is no easy answer.

One opinion for poor value for money in the first year is that it doesn’t count academically.

This ‘first year doesn’t count’ argument is a false trail. Fresher year counts beyond grades. If nothing else, it acts to strengthen your academic work, which should help grades in later years. A direct correlation between fees and grades is jarring. Understandable, yes, but still jarring.

Contact time is another false trail. A joint study by HEPI and Which?, reports on student experiences, including contact time and the differences between institutions, even for the same subject. But there are many reasons why contact time isn’t just about hours. And neither should that be the only factor when looking at value.

It’s easy to boil the university experience down to this: a path toward a degree.

But the reality is complicated, just like motivation. You (hopefully) end up with a degree at the end of your time, but is that the only value worth attaching to the fee? If so, what price are you willing to pay for a degree and why?

There are arguments against buying into a university experience altogether. Despite those reasons, some will still find great value in HE. My motivation is not yours. Your motivation is not anyone else’s.

Is £9k worth it each year? Can you give a reasonable answer?

A simple question of value is far from simple to answer amid all the confusion. It makes little sense to view university within the confines of market competition.