Make the right decision about university

Camilla reflects on her experience at two different universities to offer advice about making the best decision for you.

January 7 2016
Making a decision

University: Is it really worth it?

As I approach the end of my third year of my undergraduate degree, I’ve been looking back at my higher education and thinking about the future. Trying to sort through my options, I’ve been petrified by the sheer number of choices that lay before me. I’ve had a lot of questions. 

One question has lingered in my mind longer than most, and it’s one that really refuses to budge — 

Was my university education really worth it?

In August, A-level results are released in the UK. In September, the wheel turns and a new colony of freshers descends onto UK campuses for another year. This year there will be a group of school-leavers with more than adequate grades who will not be joining those starting at university.

These young people will not spend a year on a dodgy student mattress in university halls, but interning, travelling, setting up their own businesses, and working their socks off in realms outside academia. Most of them are more than smart enough to cope with higher education, but they’ll choose another path.

And that’s okay. 

I’ve always been a bit jealous of those who choose not to go to university, especially when I’ve been eating cereal at 2am trying to finish off my seminar readings. Some of my friends who have not gone to university have been astonishingly successful in their chosen pursuits.

Higher education in the UK is in a very different place today than it was when my parents were my age. There’s been a huge generational shift in the past 50 years. Many polytechnic colleges have re-established themselves as fully fledged universities. The “student experience” has become commercially fetishised as “the best time of your life”, with the social opportunities available often seen as a greater lure than the notion of studying itself. Now, almost everyone wants in on higher education, and having the opportunity to get a degree has become a culturally engrained right. 

However, as attitudes toward higher education have shifted, the cost of getting a degree has increased. Students today are lumbered with large amounts of debt following the completion of their degrees. The cost of living in the UK’s cities is increasing exponentially. Hidden costs, such as the price of books, laptops and printing, all add up to a rather unpleasant yearly sum. 

Working during the completion of an undergraduate degree is undoubtedly a difficult but necessary part of higher education for many students.

My parents did not pay a bean to study environmental science at university. This was in the 1970s. There were not as many graduates knocking about back then, and securing a career after university seemed a little bit easier, I think, than it is today.

Now, with more institutions and greater cultural incentives to go to university, the premium on being a graduate has dropped. Competition for graduates in a “saturated” market is, to be honest, rather cut-throat. 

Many of those I know who decided not to go to university did so because they simply couldn’t afford to go. They’ve worked for those four years I’ve spent studying. They’ve come out the other side without any debt and have established themselves in careers that they really enjoy. Some did not go to university because they secured a good internship opportunity. Others just didn’t feel ready to go, or didn’t want the university experience because they simply felt they wouldn’t enjoy it. 

With all these factors in mind, I’ve been thinking: Has the value of a degree dropped so much that going to university is not worth the grand sums that you pay for it? 

Unfortunately, there’s no right answer here. As ever, each answer will be based on individual experience. 

Personally, I think university is completely worth it.

I’m academically minded. I have relished the past four years of study. University, unlike a typical workplace, encourages you to think outside of yourself in more ways than one. I’ve loved every minute of studying social anthropology and it has broadened my mind in a way I don’t think that other experiences might have done. I’ve met researchers who have completely exploded the way I previously looked at things.

Without university, I’d be a totally different person.

My path in higher education, however, has been a rather rocky road. I started studying at one of the most prestigious institutions in the world and found the experience incredibly suffocating. I then decided, after about a year, to change route. I chose a different institution, with an approach and mentality that matched my own attitude toward my subject, and I started afresh. 

Some people are rather shocked by my decision to, in their words, “downgrade”. Obviously, I’ve had to weigh up the heavy financial implications of my choices.

I’ve engaged in some exceptionally difficult conversations about the impact of my decision to change university on my future career. Overall, I’ve decided that finding somewhere that matched my approach to my subject, my overall happiness and personal values was far more important than anything else. 

So for those people who are weighing up whether going to university is worth all that money – I think I have a bit of advice.

Advice for making your decision

First, if you decide that you don’t want to go to university, make sure you have a back-up plan. Think about what it is in life that really motivates you, and pursue that. Leverage your contacts, try out a few different things, and keep going  –  you’ll get through. 

If you decide going to university is worth all the money you pay for it, you’ve got to think carefully about a few things. I think there are two essential considerations that come into play when weighing up the value of one’s education.

Firstly, be pragmatic in the choice of your subject  –  you’re paying a lot to study it! As a social anthropology student, I chose something I love. However, this subject is not in any way, shape or form related to a particular career. I’m fully prepared to face the wrath (and pain) of graduate recruitment. 

Undoubtedly, you should pick something that you will like. You’re going to be studying it for three or four years at undergraduate level, and should you choose postgraduate study, even more. Try to think pragmatically about the sorts of careers in which you might be interested. If your degree has no relation to this field, make contacts outside of university and think carefully about whether you have made the right choice. 

Secondly, choose the right university FOR YOU. The value of your education will shoot right up if you actually enjoy the way your subject is taught. Going to open days can really help you get a feel for what kind of institution you might want to go to, but really, you’re going to have to do a bit more digging than this. More than anything, contact the academics that you are going to be working with and ask them questions about their approach to their research. Find students that you can contact and ask them about their experiences. Try imagining yourself in a particular place as the person that you are right now, not as idealistic image of yourself in the future.

Does it feel right?

I know it’s hard, but this is an important decision. Make sure it’s the right one. 

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