Answering the question ‘Should I go to University?’ will be the first big decision in most people’s careers. The second will be regarding which degree topic to study. Both of these are difficult decisions for a 17-year-old to make, particularly with the backdrop that this is partially what will determine your future career.
The pros of going to University are that graduates tend to earn more throughout their careers, develop important social skills and have often had an enjoyable three years. The cons are the significant student loan debt and the eroding reputation of University degrees due to grade inflation.
As I see it, when answering the question ‘should I go to University even if I don’t know what to study?’ – you have 3 options. Option a – don’t go. Option b – study an employable, generalised degree like Business Management or Economics. Or option C – study a topic you have become interested in whilst at school and that you have a passion for, even if it’s not considered ‘highly employable’.
Should I go to University if I don’t know what to study?
There are many reasons to go to University even if you don’t know what to study – this includes employment, salary, educational and social considerations. However, for many people, a University degree will have to be weighed up against the significant student loan debt you will amass.
Whether you choose to go to University or not depends on your personal situation as well as your future career aspirations. I would hazard a guess that the overwhelming majority of University students don’t have a specific degree in mind when they make the decision they would like to attend.
Other than those who have already made the decision on their future career such as those wishing to enter the STEM fields and therefore have their degrees decided by default, most students won’t instinctively know what they will study and this shouldn’t necessarily dissuade you from going to University.
When I was making this decision for myself, the default path in my school was to apply for University, with the vast majority of students becoming undergraduates. I fell into the same pattern and decided I wanted to go to University despite not having a particular degree in mind.
Much like many 17-year-olds, I hadn’t put much thought into what I wanted to do for a career and ended up deciding on option B above – getting a more general, ’employable’ degree in Business Management to kick the can down the road a little in terms of making a long-term career choice.
What are your options if you don’t know what to study at University
There are pros and cons of each decision you can make when deciding whether to go to university without having a specific degree in mind:
Option A – Not going to University at all
Pro – You will save on average £36,000 of student loan debts and be able to begin to increase your net worth directly out of school (rather than reducing it as you would when you take on a student loan).
Pro – You can join the workforce 3 years earlier and be three years ahead of your classmates by the time they have graduated.
Pro – Arguably University prepares students to move into formal employment, by not going to University, you could take a less conventional career path and start your own business.
Con – You will become closed off to certain job roles by not getting a degree. A common route into careers is via the ‘Graduate scheme’ which, as the name suggests, requires you to be a graduate.
Con – You limit your future salary. The Department of Education suggests that the median graduate salary is £10,000 higher than a non-graduates and the employment rate is considerably lower for non-graduates (71.6%) than for graduates (87.4%). Figures via the report are linked here.
Option B – Go to University and study a general, employable degree like Business Management.
Pro – You will increase the likelihood of being employed in a well-paid job post-graduation.
Pro – You are able to defer the decision about what career path you want to take whilst leaving your options open to further explore various possibilities during your time at University.
Con – You will amass significant student loan debt upon graduating with a degree you may not be particularly passionate about or even interested in.
Option C – Go to University and study a topic you are interested in or passionate about
Pro – You will achieve a degree in a topic that you are interested in whilst still gaining the critical thinking skills and social benefits of going to University.
Con – You will incur large student loan debts and achieve a degree that may not prove to make you much more employable in the long run.
The case against going to University
In recent years, a strong case has started to emerge against the value of getting a University degree. Common criticisms cited include the ridiculously high fees, grade inflation, newspaper league tables and the ever-expanding array of courses.
All of these criticisms are interrelated – to justify high fees and rank well in newspaper University league tables, University lecturers are incentivized to inflate grades. League tables published within newspapers such as The Guardian (2020’s league table linked here) are now considered a primary source for prospective students to use when deciding which University to attend. Despite this, the data is hard to understand and the results are based on the National Student Survey which is easily manipulated by the individual Universities.
To rank highly in these league tables, Universities are incentivized to show high grades and high post-graduate employment statistics (which is indirectly linked to grades). This has led to a point where grades have become so inflated that employers are frequently requesting that candidates have achieved a 2:1 grade or above to even be considered for a job role.
The problems with Universities in the UK date back to 1992 at which point Polytechnics were converted to Universities and were given the power to award formal degrees overnight. In a push for more graduates, the standards University degrees are held to have been slowly eroded over time.
The drive towards improved grades has naturally affected the nature of the material taught within degrees. Take an Engineering degree, for example, to ensure students achieve reasonable grades and the University continues to rank highly in the league tables, the most difficult material may be omitted or neutered.
The problem is, if students don’t learn this difficult content, true educational standards will fall and society at large will suffer as key innovations and solutions are delayed via poor teaching.
Are degrees worth the money?
On average, degrees are worth the money from a financial perspective. Although the student loan debts are financially significant (£36,000 on average as of 2018), the expected uplift in salary over the course of your career should more than repay this figure.
The caveat to this is if you end up in the same job after a degree as you could have got anyway, clearly the degree was not worth it purely in terms of the numbers. However, this doesn’t consider the intangibles of going to University such as developing social connections, learning how to think in different ways and enjoying yourself which many students are happy to pay for.
Degrees in the UK incur maximum annual tuition fees of £9,250 (£27,750 over a typical 3-year course), University costs tend to rise to a total of £36,000 on average due to maintenance loans to pay for accommodation.
In terms of your personal finance, having a debt of £36,000 isn’t a trivial matter. For most people, this means you would likely be in a negative net worth position well into your 20s and when you get your first mortgage.
As an example, let’s say you bought a £300,000 house when you’re 25 using a downpayment of £50,000 which is all of your savings to date. Your financial position would then be a net worth of -£30,000 (assuming you’ve paid a few thousand off of your student loan since graduating) and you would then be taking on another debt of £250,000. When you step back and think about it, this is a crazy state of affairs for your personal finance.
If you were a Company rather than an individual, your business would be so highly geared (proportion of debt to equity) that investors or lenders wouldn’t come anywhere near you, yet, it is considered a totally normal situation for most young adults in the UK.
Overall, the University system in the UK has been subject to increased criticism and some of the objections to getting a degree including the financial implications are valid.
Despite this, going to University and getting a degree is worth it even if you don’t know exactly what you will study. By going to University, not only will you further improve your education, you will open up a far greater array of career opportunities for yourself and likely command a high salary than you otherwise would.
However, if you know the field you want to work in doesn’t require a university degree, you may be better served saving yourself from the large debts and moving straight into the world of work at age 18.
This article has been written by Luke Girling, ACA – a qualified Accountant and personal finance enthusiast in the UK. Please visit my ‘About‘ page for more information. To get in touch with questions or ideas for future posts, please comment below or contact me here.