Is University Worth It?

In VIth Form, the idea of going to university is almost automatic. The discussion about university courses is mostly about what and where. But not why.

But the ‘why’ warrants some thought, especially considering all the costs involved with going to university and weighing those up against the benefits, both monetary and personal.

Cost of a degree

A typical 3-year bachelor’s degree at a Russell Group university in the UK now costs just under £30,000 in tuition fees alone (more if you are an international student) plus at least another £11,000 - £13,000 a year for accommodation and general living expenses. Assume a total sum of £60,000 to £66,000 for a 3-year degree course. This amount of money would make anybody sit up and think about the value and return of such a hefty investment.

But do prospective students really know about and consider these costs? For me personally, at 18, university almost seemed ‘free’, because I knew I could qualify for some loans at least and that paying those back could be put off (in my head!) indefinitely. I don’t think I was alone in this thinking. Money is not on a teenager’s mind when deciding on university. Should an 18-year-old know what they want to do after leaving university to offset the expected future income against the debt they are about to accumulate? Most 18 years olds don’t, and hence we should use some methodology to assess the value of the degree we choose.

Value of a degree

There is evidently a lot to consider before attending university, and a good way to start is to look at how the benefit of obtaining a degree could improve your earnings later in life, therefore making the debt incurred ‘worth it’. The ‘future earnings potential’ is a good metric to put monetary value on a degree as it measures how much more income can be generated over a lifetime with a degree or without it. A very detailed 2020 report by the Department for Education and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (see link below) shows the real value of undergraduate degrees in most subject groups over a lifetime. In short, although many starting salaries for undergrads do not differ that much, over a longer period some degrees pay infinitely much more. Law, Economics and Medicine still far outpace the other disciplines. However, bear in mind that data, by default, are backward-looking, and that the pandemic may have broken the ‘supremacy’ of the traditional degree courses, as today probably the bio sciences and computer programming would top the future-earnings-potential list.

So other than a direct monetary value, there is the intangible value

There are a lot of other benefits to going to university than monetary value alone. If it were only about preparing for a job, we could all learn online faster and cheaper, but the various lockdowns showed being a ‘remote learner’ was missing the point of university. A lot was being said about ‘value for money’, indicating that we attach more value to attending university than only being educated in our subjects.

University is a place of unbridled learning (including peer-to-peer), socialising, and trying new things. Not only can you make friends for life but also, for many people, staying in halls will be the first time they have left home to live independently. This ‘rite of passage’ means that young people gain an independence and strength that they would most certainly not have if they had stayed at home. It is the carefree period between being a teenager and a young adult and all the responsibilities that come with it. University could be the making of you.

How to finance your degree

Organising the finances for your undergraduate degree will take some planning. Outside family funding, you can get government funding. The UK government offers loans for people from low-income households of up to £17,475 per year, tuition and maintenance inclusive. Times this by three, and you’ve got a pretty hefty loan of £52,425. Add to this the yearly interest rate, which at the moment is estimated at being around 5.6% per year for post-grads making over £27,296 a year and you can grasp how long this debt could follow you. Maybe it is worthwhile getting a part-time job to reduce the future financial burden of student-debt.

International students will not have access to such funding, but there are a good range of scholarships available from several universities directly and it is certainly worthwhile to search for what is specifically on offer for your country, your chosen university or for your chosen course.

But despite all the extra help, going to university in the UK is expensive. And whilst it might lead to a bit of a headache, thinking seriously about the pros and cons of attending university and what and where you want to study, should be highly encouraged. So, before you dive in, do the math. Your future self will thank you.

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