Is university worth it?

When tuition fees were only £1,000 per year – or before that, completely free – plenty of people went to university without really considering if there might be an alternative.

Now that tuition can set you back as much as £9,000 per year, and students leave uni with up to £57,000 in debt, the question has to be asked: is university worth it?

Why do people go to university?

Even when the cost is so high, there are still plenty of reasons to study for a degree.

Higher lifetime earnings

In general, graduates still earn more than non-graduates. In 2018, working-age graduates earned an average salary of £34,000, compared to £24,000 for non-graduates.

Median salaries for non-graduates and graduates according to the Department for Education

According to government statistics, female graduates earn an average £250,000 more than non-graduates over the course of a lifetime; £170,000 for men. A separate report by jobs website Adzuna found the figure to be closer to £500,000.

The graduate premium varies wildly between subjects. The highest earners tend to be in economics, law and STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

At the other end of the scale, arts graduates tend to earn 15% lower than the graduate average, and can end up with £15,000 less over their lifetime than if they’d never gone to university at all.

These are just averages, of course. Arts graduates can go on to earn more than technical counterparts. And there are high paying professions you don’t need a degree for – like equities trader and air traffic controller.

best-paying jobs you don't need a degree for

But broadly speaking, higher earning professions remain the preserve of those with a degree.

Higher employment rate

A smaller, but related benefit, is that the unemployment rate for graduates tends to be lower than for non-graduates.

This may have as much to do with the kind of person that goes to university as it does the degree itself, but all else being equal, employers will often favour the candidate with the better education.

Although the news that there are greater numbers of graduates in non-graduate work is often cited as evidence a degree is no longer worth it, the flip-side is that a degree is an increasingly common requirement for jobs that used not to require a university education.

The experience

When the first cohort of £9,000 tuition students were asked by The Telegraph whether university was still worth it, ‘the experience’ came up a lot as a good reason to go.

It’s something of a cliché, but in the UK at least, university has long been about more than just improving your job prospects. It’s seen as a stepping-stone into adulthood. The chance to be independent with limited responsibilities. For many, it’s the best time of their life.

And there are plenty of people who argue for the value of education in itself, both for individual life experience and for an enriched society.

What about student debt?

The debt is real, of course, and must be taken into account. The average student is expected to graduate with over £50,000 of student debt, more for poorer students.

Although that number looks alarming, it’s important to look at how that debt is structured. When tuition fees were increased, the pill was sweetened with easier repayment terms for student loans.

You only start making payments once your earnings rise above £494 a week, or £2,143 a month. That translates to a salary of £25,716 per annum.

To illustrate, here’s the government’s own example:

Your annual income is £28,800 and you are paid a regular monthly wage. This means that each month your income is £2,400 (£28,800 divided by 12). This is over the Plan 2 monthly threshold of £2,143.

Your income is £257 over the threshold (£2,400 minus £2,143). You will pay back £23 (9% of £257) each month.

Payments then, are never more than you could reasonably afford. The debt doesn’t affect your credit score, or your ability to take out a mortgage. Anything you haven’t paid after 30 years gets written off. One study found that 73% of students are expected not to pay their loan back in full.

Either your degree rockets you into the highest earners, or you don’t pay. The sums are big, but the risk is low.

However, many students need more than the student loan allows. If your family can’t support you while you study, it’s worth educating yourself on what grants and bursaries you might be entitled to, and considering a part-time job.

And approach the free overdrafts banks offer with caution. They can be helpful while you study, but they don’t take long to attract fees once you graduate.

Alternatives to university

University’s not for everybody. You might suit a more hands-on style of learning. There are plenty of alternatives to university if you want to continue your education but minimise your time in the library.

Apprenticeships

There are two types of apprenticeship: Degree Apprenticeship and Higher Apprenticeship.

The former typically lasts four to six years and grants you a degree-equivalent qualification. The latter is a similar combination of hands-on experience and study but leads to employment in a non-graduate field.

Apprentices work a minimum 30-hour week in paid employment, with study scheduled to fit. Tuition fees are paid by the employer and government. Apprentices don’t necessarily earn much – the minimum is £3.90 per hour in the first year – but there’s no student debt, and you are getting paid.

Plus, 90% of apprentices stay in employment once they qualify – 71% with the same employer – and the earning potential can be as good as for graduates, if not better.

Foundation degrees

Foundation degrees are similar to apprenticeships, in that they allow you to study while continuing to work, and prepare you for a specific field.

They can also be a route to a full degree for people with the skills, but not the academic credentials, to enrol in university. There are no set entry requirements, and work experience often counts more.

A foundation degree is equivalent to two-thirds of a normal degree. Once completed, students can move on to full-time employment or choose to study for an extra year to ‘top-up’ to a full degree.

Courses last two years full-time, longer for part-time students.

Traineeships

If you don’t meet the entry criteria for an apprenticeship, a traineeship can give you work experience while helping you get English and Maths qualifications if required.

Traineeships last up to six months. They’re unpaid, although you may be reimbursed for expenses. At the end of your traineeship, you’ll have gained valuable employment skills and should qualify for an apprenticeship.

Is university worth it?

It depends what you want to get out of it. It remains the most established route to higher earnings. A degree is still the ticket to a galaxy of opportunities – whether you take them or not. And it’s the only chance you’ll likely get in life to immerse yourself in intellectual pursuit.

The debt is high, but the way it’s structured means it shouldn’t put you off. Either you get the expected financial boost or you simply don’t pay.

The real question is whether it’s the right choice for you. You might be better suited to an apprenticeship, vocational training or simply getting on with a job. And that’s a question only you can answer.

To help you make that decision, visit UCAS for more information on your options.

Having a financial safety net can help you make the most of the opportunities available to you.