I've gotten into a couple discussions recently where I've said that university degrees are often overrated, and I've gotten a lot of push-back on the topic, so I figure I should step back and explain myself from first principles.
A degree is a large commitment. Even if you're in a place where tuition is free, giving up on four years of earning potential, even at an unskilled labourer's wage, is a loss of perhaps $100,000. Tuition in places like the US can easily double that. If you want extra degrees, or if you take some time to find your way through school, it can double again. That's a heck of an investment - in addition to being 1/20 of your whole life, it's enough money to by a house in a lot of places.
There's a lot of reasons why people make any decision that big, and it's hard to disentangle them all. I think that in practice a lot of folks just go because it's expected of them, and find the benefits later - I think that was a bigger part of my own decision than I'd ever have admitted at the time(part 3 of this post is relevant here). But I think there's a few big ones that are both quite common and actual reasons that stand up to analysis, and I'd like to look at them in some detail. Needless to say, not all of these reasons apply to everyone, and the proportions will vary quite a bit, but I think most self-aware students will have at least a bit of each of these in their head.
1) Developing yourself as a person by studying things that you find interesting and educational
This one is most commonly associated with liberal arts majors, but it's true of just about everyone. University is where you finally get to understand how the world works in real depth, and to anyone with a scrap of curiousity, it's fascinating stuff. A better understanding of some facet of the world, be it politics or history or physics or the legendary underwater basket-weaving, makes you a better citizen of the world.
2) Developing your earning potential through acquisition of hard skills that are useful to potential employers.
While the traditional split between "university" and "college" is that university is for academia and college is for employment skills, it's a fuzzy line. Med school is quite definitely practical, but if you suggested that med schools should move from Harvard to DeVry, you'd get just a bit of push-back. A lot of degrees are practical courses for one career or another - things like engineering, finance, law, and teaching are the obvious ones, but every degree can be a job skills degree if you want to be a professor.
3) Signalling your overall fitness as a potential employee by proving your soft skills through your ability to get into a university and complete the assigned workload over a period of years.
In the days when a degree was a virtual job guarantee, it was because of this signal - it set you apart from the others. A degree requires you to have the academic skills from your teenage years to get into a university, financial resources to pay for it, and the intelligence, work ethic, and general fortitude to stick out a four-year program that's at least moderately difficult and see it through to the end. This one is a bit questionable if you look at it the right way - the value a degree provides in this category is mostly a certificate saying that you're not one of those icky poor people who can't even get a degree. It's a certification of a middle-class upbringing that HR is allowed to take into account. Still, this is where a big part of a degree's value comes from.
4) Developing a social network through intense and deep shared experiences with a close group of peers, and having a lot of fun in the process.
University is the last chance most people have to be a part of a large group of people who are artificially placed at precisely the same point in their personal development and devote their whole life to the process for an extended period. Once you graduate, you'll almost certainly never again be thrown in with hundreds of precisely matched peers, and it's an experience that really does amazing things for building social networks. Probably half of my Facebook friends are people I met in university, despite university being mostly in the pre-Facebook era. It's literally hundreds, and while some of them are people I'm not particularly close to, the ratio is probably better there than for my non-university friends. After graduating, most of the people I've added to my social group have either been co-workers, none of whom I'm really close to, or friends of friends(and 99% of the time, that friend group comes back to my school buddies).
None of these reasons is bad or wrong, and none is morally inferior. However, they do imply different things for your earning potential, and they tend to be correlated with different majors. In the context of debates, people tend to talk up #1 if they're arguing the pro-univeristy side, #2 if they're trying to be hard-headed and practical, and #3 if they're trying to explain why a degree is worth so much less than it used to be. Oddly, nobody mentions #4 much, even though it's usually the part of the degree that new students look forward to most and graduates remember most fondly.
The reason I say that university is overrated is mostly explained by looking at which of them actually require a degree. #3 pretty clearly does - the whole value is defined by the degree, and it doesn't exist outside of the university system. #2 can be done anywhere, but given that the goal is to prove the skills to someone else, having a recognized credentialing authority like a university involved in the process has obvious utility. For some skills, there's alternatives - programming boot camps are the most obvious examples - but for some skills, university is an absolute legal requirement. #4 is in practice best done at a university, because it places large groups of people in exactly the same place in their lives when they would not otherwise be - that level of closeness requires a bit of artificial grouping, and almost nothing in the adult world has enough sway over your life to make that happen. About the only comparable arrangement in the adult world is the military, but most people would never think of joining the army in this era.
The odd man out is #1. It's a personal goal, which doesn't require proof to anyone else. There's no need for you to get a Certificate in Personal Growth from a reputable institution. Universities provide some tools for bouncing ideas off of others and exposing you to things you might not naturally encounter, but in the modern era, these are not nearly so valuable as they used to be - frankly, I suspect there's a subreddit or a specialist forum somewhere for most majors that will teach you the topic faster and better than the average university. If not, internet schools are getting pretty amazing these days(1, 2, 3), and within a few more years they may well get to the point where they're real substitutes for a degree if your only goal is to learn for your own sake.
#3 also deserves a bit of discussion. #3 is a signal, not a skill or an asset. A signal does not create value, it merely redistributes it. So in 1967, when only a small percentage of the population got degrees, a degree signalled you were way above average. In 2017, when most high school graduates go on to university, a degree means nothing. The odd part is that this hasn't actually reduced the value of the signal at all. Instead, the inverse signal - that of not having a degree - has taken on a large negative value. If you're a 20-something with no degree, your job prospects are almost nonexistent, even for jobs that don't require any actual university-taught skills and where four years on an assembly line will teach you more job-relevant skills than a typical degree would. The average student doesn't do any better once they're in the workforce because of the proliferation of degrees, but an individual who tries to opt out will get punished severely. This is a pretty classic prisoner's dilemma in action - every person who goes to school primarily for reason #3 is harmed by it, because of the lost years of work, but nobody can opt out by themselves.
So which of those four reasons actually makes a degree a good way to spend 5% of your life? Well, #2 is a slam-dunk if you're going for the right sort of degree- if it gets you the skills you need for a good job, it's a good investment. And while this usually means money, it doesn't have to - if you really want to be an astronomer, for example, a PhD in astrophysics is a good investment in making your life better in non-financial ways. #3 is one that makes a lot of sense as an individual, but on a societal level, it's insane - I want to change HR procedures for every employer in the world just to eliminate this, because it's causing hundreds of billions of dollars a year to go to something that doesn't really make much sense(unless the other reasons are sufficient, of course, but there's lots of students where they aren't).
#1 and #4 feel more like hobbies to me than investments. Again, this is not pejorative - hobbies are good, and people should have them. Learning about the world is a nice thing to be able to do, and I spend a lot of my time on it despite being out of school for close to a decade. But there's other ways to get an education and a social group, and those ways are a lot cheaper. Resources are finite, and there may be a better and more efficient way to get these things than a degree. If you're well-off and have the money to throw at it, then by all means spend some on a degree - they can be a lot of fun. But there's other ways to have fun, to grow as a person, and to develop hobbies and social groups and non-employment skills. University is the best approach for some people, especially if you're already there for reasons #2 or #3, but it's not the right call for everyone, and I want to create a culture where people examine if it makes sense for their individual circumstances, instead of just shuffling off to school because it's what everyone else is doing.
If you decide that you're at school just to have fun and make yourself better in a way nobody else will ever see, that's great. I don't mean that sarcastically either - these are the things that make life worth living. But we shouldn't be throwing billions of government dollars at helping people do that. Government policy on post-secondary should, in short, focus on encouraging #2(particularly the high-income-potential sorts of job skills), destroying #3 as best they can, and giving the people who are doing #1 or #4 a nice big smile and all the well-wishes in the world. After all, as McDonald's used to say, smiles are free.
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