Is going to university worth it?
Mounting tuition fees, the supposed 'decreased value' of degrees and the growing number of other options have led many to question whether university is still worth it – here's the answer.
Choosing whether or not to go to university is a massive decision, and ultimately it could come down to one simple question: is it worth getting a degree?
There are plenty of alternatives to university and it's by no means the only route to a successful career, but does that mean that it's not worth going to university anymore? And what about the rest of the student experience – is that enough to make uni a worthwhile investment of your time and money?
We asked students and graduates on Facebook for their thoughts, as well as summarising the main arguments for and against university being worth it, so read on for some help making up your mind!
What’s in this guide?
Advantages of going to university
These are the reasons why going to university is worth it:
Graduates earn more money
"If you go to university, you'll get a higher-paying job". It's something we've all heard – so often, in fact, that you may even be wondering if it's an urban myth.
Well, the good news for students, graduates and those considering uni, is that getting a degree usually does lead to a bigger pay cheque.
Studies, including this research by HESA (the Higher Education Statistics Agency) and the University of Warwick, have consistently found that graduates have a higher average salary than those who didn't go to university.
Granted, it's been found that the so-called 'graduate premium' isn't quite as extreme as it once was. But these same studies recognise that there is still a financial benefit to getting a degree, especially if you get a first or a 2:1.
So, for a flavour of how much you could expect to be earning in your first job, check out our list of graduate salaries for students of every university subject.Don't worry if you get less than a 2:1 – plenty of the top graduate employers accept a 2:2!
University improves your job prospects
The 2008 financial crash. Brexit. Coronavirus. Students and graduates seeking work in the 21st Century have hardly been dealt the kindest of hands, and finding a decent job is arguably harder than ever.
One thing you can do to give yourself a headstart on the competition is to get a degree. Of course, there are some jobs that absolutely require you to have a degree to work in the industry, like becoming a doctor.
But what you may not know is that many non-specialist jobs usually ask that you've been to university, too. In job vacancies, plenty of companies will ask that applicants have a degree-level education – and while it's not impossible to get the job without being a graduate, when you're up against dozens (if not hundreds) of other applicants, it's pretty tough!
And that's before we even get into the small matter of graduate schemes – one of the most popular employment routes for students after university which, as the name suggests, are exclusively open to graduates.
Aside from giving you a decent salary and a professional job straight out of uni, graduate schemes will often accelerate your career development in a way that wouldn't have otherwise been possible. Here's what one graduate had to say regarding whether or not university is worth the money:
Definitely. There's no way I'd be coaching in a software team now without the start I had in a graduate role four years ago.
Opportunity to make professional connections
Your university lecturers won't just be good teachers (hopefully). In many cases, they'll also be respected names in their fields with personal lines to some of the real movers and shakers in the industry you're aiming for.
As long as you don't do too much to disgruntle your lecturers (aiming for a first always helps), they should be more than happy to give you some career guidance and even put you in touch with other experienced heads who can give you a few pointers.
Just show some passion and flair for whatever subject it is that you're studying (and some good manners, of course), and you'll be surprised at just how many people are willing to help you.
But it's not just your tutors who can give you a leg-up on the career ladder. Departments will often run events for their students, inviting industry experts along to offer information and advice to anyone looking to join the field.
If you're considering a job that's relevant to your degree, these events can be super useful and are unlikely to be something you could take advantage of if you hadn't attended university. As one graduate on Facebook said:
The teaching side was a let down for me, but I compensated [for] that by taking advantage of the careers service and going on networking events. It really helped me secure my first and current role after uni.
Even after you've graduated, staying in touch with your course mates can prove to be incredibly useful, too.
If you studied a course with a clear career path at the end of it, you'll find that keeping contact with your peers is a great way to share tips on how to break into the industry. This is especially useful if getting your first job in the field is more a case of who you know, rather than what you know.
You'll develop transferrable skills
Professional connections are all well and good if you know what job you want to do after university, but what if you're still unsure? Well, don't panic – even if you graduate and still don't have a clue what you want to do with your life, you'll have picked up a whole load of invaluable transferrable skills while at uni.
While a degree is undoubtedly an impressive addition to your CV, don't forget that employers also want you to have other skills like responsibility, organisation and motivation.
These are all transferrable skills that are useful no matter what career you end up pursuing, and given the focus on independent learning at university, you'll almost certainly develop them during your time as a student.
You'll make new friends at university
University isn't all about the job prospects – it's also an opportunity to meet new people.
Now, for some of you, the idea of having to make friends at uni will fill you with dread, and we totally get that. But trust us when we say that it's absolutely nowhere near as bad as you're imagining, and after a week or two you'll be wondering why you were ever nervous in the first place.
You may find it helps to bear in mind that pretty much everybody else is just as nervous about meeting new people as you are, and that they'll almost certainly be grateful if you make the effort to break the ice.
And remember that your university will be home to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of students. Statistically, there must be people there who you'll get along with! Here's how one reader explained why they think university is worth it:
Not just for education but [for] the best three years of your life and [you'll] make lifelong friends.
You'll become independent and experience a new city
For many of you, starting university will also be the first time you're living away from home. Like making friends, this can seem daunting – but once again, the reality is usually far less daunting than the worst-case scenario you may be imagining.
You might already have all the skills you need to be independent, but don't worry if you don't – we have advice on essential cooking skills, how to keep to a budget, paying bills, dealing with homesickness and so much more!
And once you have your newfound independence, you'll never want to go back. You can cook what you want, when you want. You can spend your money how you want to (within reason, obviously). Never again will you fall victim to the age-old comeback, "when you're under my roof, you abide by my rules".
Here's what one graduate told us about how the life skills alone were almost enough to make uni worth it:
I feel like uni also taught me life skills and eased me in to living away from home and gave me opportunities I wouldn’t have been able to get if I stayed living at home and went straight into work!
What's more, you'll get to do all of this in a city or town that could be brand new to you. We have guides on some the UK's biggest student cities, but nothing quite matches up to exploring the surroundings yourself.
Whether it's the pubs, music venues, natural landscape or any of the other activities to do in the local area, you're bound to have a great time discovering what your new home has to offer – and you can do it all on your own watch.
You get to study a subject you're passionate about
We could hardly miss this one out, could we? More so than at any other stage in your education, university offers you the chance to only study what you're interested in.
Granted, there's no guarantee that you'll like every module of your degree – but fundamentally you'll still like the subject as a whole. So, unlike at school, you shouldn't end up stuck in a lecture, bored out of your mind wondering why the hell you're listening to someone talk about something you absolutely could not care less about.
On the contrary – for the first time ever (probably), you can look forward to the majority of your lectures and even pick the modules you're interested in the most.
And, as one graduate explained when we asked if university is worth the money, being around similarly passionate students and academics can really push you to take your interest to the next level:
I studied illustration and graphic design, and although you can argue you can practice art on your own I don't think I would have pushed myself as much on my own. I'm grateful I had the opportunity and drive from university.
Disadvantages of going to university
While there are a huge number of reasons why going to university is a good thing, there are some arguments against it, too.
Here are some reasons why becoming a student may be a bad decision:
University can be expensive
Possibly the biggest argument against going to university is the apparent cost of studying. Accounting for both tuition fees and your Maintenance Loan, many students will graduate with debts of more than £50,000 – a huge figure, no matter which way you look at it.
In particular, if you're unsure about what you want to study, the financial side of things is definitely worth considering. As one person told us on Facebook:
A lot of people go without being certain of what they want to study and it can be a very expensive mistake.
However, it's important to make a distinction between how much university costs and what you actually pay.
Tuition fees, despite the hefty price tag and constant scrutiny from the media, are arguably the least of your concerns. The majority of students attending university for the first time can get a Tuition Fee Loan to cover the cost of tuition in full (and Student Finance in Scotland essentially wipes this for most students anyway).
Admittedly, depending on where you study, this could amount to almost £30,000 (or more for longer courses). But, as we explain in more detail in our guide to Student Loan repayments, you borrow this money on some pretty generous terms – so generous, in fact, that most students will never repay it all before the debt is cancelled after 30 or so years.
Of course, it's not just the money for tuition that you'll need to borrow. The Maintenance Loan is designed to cover your living costs as a student, and the average amount borrowed is around £6,859 a year (although this figure will vary significantly depending on a few factors).
Although this sounds like a lot of money (and, to be fair, it is), our research has found that it still falls short of the average cost of living for students.
There's usually a shortfall between the size of the Maintenance Loan and the amount of money you need to get by, and that's when you need to turn to alternative funding methods like parental contributions (which the government actually expects you to do anyway), part-time jobs and bursaries, scholarships and grants.
THIS is when university will cost you money, and THIS is the financial aspect you'll need to consider.
Is it worth going to university during coronavirus?
When universities were forced to close during the coronavirus pandemic, lectures moved online. While this was clearly the best option in some far-from-ideal circumstances, many students understandably questioned whether or not they were still getting value for money for their tuition fees.
The government has confirmed that, online lectures or otherwise, tuition fees will remain the same in 2020/21, and that there will be no universal refunds for students whose studies were affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Given that your tuition fees are paid for you upfront and you're unlikely to pay it all back, we'd encourage you not to get too caught up with this way of thinking when it comes to coronavirus (although, for what it's worth, we'd rather there were no fees at all).
Instead, we'd urge you to consider how much you value having a 'traditional' freshers' week, a 'traditional' halls experience and the same level of in-person lectures and seminars as in other years.
We're keeping our guide to what uni will be like in 2020/21 up to date, and when deciding whether it's worth going this year, we reckon it's much more productive to consider these factors instead of the apparent 'cost'.
Having a degree doesn't guarantee you a job
As great as it is that university is becoming more and more accessible, the one downside (if you can even call it that) is that more people now have degrees. And if more people have degrees, simply having one no longer makes you stand out from the competition quite as much as it once did.
So, with close to 50% of young people now going to university, it's fair to say that getting a degree isn't in itself a guarantee of getting a job.
That's not to say that a degree has no worth at all – as we explained earlier, even job adverts that aren't for graduate schemes will often ask that you have been to university. And it's also hard to deny that getting a first in whatever subject you study will impress employers.
Really what we're saying is: you shouldn't go to university and assume that just getting a degree will be enough to complete an amazing CV.
University could slow your career progression
While getting a degree could certainly accelerate your career progression (as the quote earlier testifies), in some industries it could slow you down.
If going to university isn't considered important in a given profession, chances are there will be people who left school at 18 and went straight into the field. And, with a three-year headstart, these same people will probably be three years ahead of you on the career ladder.
Now, ultimately this doesn't have to matter if you don't want it to. If you know the career you've got your eyes on doesn't require a degree, but you still want to go to university anyway, that's up to you!
But if you're keen to get working ASAP and don't want to fall behind your peers, maybe it's best that you don't go to university after all. One commenter on Facebook summed this up perfectly, saying:
So many people would be better off going straight into work or [the] apprentice route because what they actually need, and what employers want, is experience.Apprenticeships and work aren't your only other options – check out the full list of alternatives to university.
You may change your mind and want to drop out
Just as your answer to 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' may change year to year, there's no guarantee that you won't suddenly lose interest in your chosen subject while at university.
You may get a few months, or even a couple of years, into your course and decide it's not for you – be that because it was mis-sold to you as having a stronger focus on something else, because you want to pursue a different career, or because you simply aren't interested anymore.
Or, you may struggle to settle in your new surroundings. Homesickness at university is a very real issue, and while time and stepping out of your comfort zone can be the cures for some, for others the issues are too big to overcome.
In these cases, your best option may be to drop out of uni – but there are some strings attached. For starters, you'll need to immediately repay any Maintenance Loan you received that covers the remainder of the term (note that this is separate to the rest of your Student Loan balance, which is repaid normally).
Secondly, if in the future you decide you want to go back to uni, you may find you're entitled to less funding than you were the first time around. Student Loans are mostly intended for first-time students, and you can read more about this here.
Nonetheless, dropping out of university isn't the end of the world. As one user on Facebook explained, if you don't feel it's a good fit, leaving uni early could be the best decision:
I started a law degree at uni but had a very difficult time and left. I felt completely lost after leaving, law was the only career I wanted and I thought I’d blown it. A few years and a lot of blood, sweat and tears later I am now a qualified lawyer. Uni is not for everyone and that’s okay!
University can be a stressful experience
The stereotypical university experience is one of drinking, partying and lie-ins. And yes, you'll no doubt get your fill of all of these while you're a student – but it's not all fun and games.
As the old saying goes, nothing worth doing is ever easy – and the same is true of getting a degree. The style of learning required at university is far more independent than at school, and to complete your studies you'll need to work hard (especially if you're aiming for a first).
You may only have as few as eight hours of lectures a week, but most courses will recommend that you top that up to 40 hours with assignments and independent study. This is all in your free time, so you'll need to be able to motivate yourself to work productively.
Beyond the hard work, it's also worth being aware of the mental health problems that students across the UK experience.
Reports suggest that as many as one in four students experience mental health issues while at university, with many telling us that a significant factor is the stress of having to make ends meet. For many others, being stripped of their usual support system of family and friends makes the switch a real struggle.
The quality of mental health support services varies drastically from uni to uni, and the process of switching GP and getting a recommendation for a course of therapy can be an added stressor during an already difficult time (although registering with the doctor as soon as you get to uni can help).
It's important to emphasise that it's by no means a guarantee (or even close to it) that going to uni will have a negative effect on your mental health, or that the support services will be anything other than excellent, but it's definitely something to be wary of.
A combination of factors including financial difficulties, academic pressures and living with potentially tricky housemates can take their toll, and while there's a lot of support out there (including our guide and Disabled Students' Allowance for those with longer-term conditions), it's best to bear this all in mind when choosing a university.
Is it worth going to university?
In our opinion, yes – it is worth going to university, but only if you think it's the right decision for you.
There are definitely some strong arguments both for and against university being worth the money, and ultimately the verdict will differ from person to person.
If your dream job doesn't require a degree and you're confident you can make it without going to uni, then perhaps it isn't the route for you. It's also worth considering further education or vocational courses, which are just a couple of the alternatives to university.
Similarly, if you think you might struggle to make the leap to independent living and learning, going to university may not be the right path (at least not right now – remember that you can always go to university in a couple of years!). And remember, there's no need to make up your mind straight away – you could even take a gap year and use the time to assess your options.
However, bearing in mind the personal, professional and academic opportunities it can give you, even in the modern era, we really believe that university is worth it!
Still haven't chosen a uni? Check out the list of the top 10 universities in the UK – your dream destination could be in there.