Is going to university worth it?
With mounting tuition fees and the supposed 'decreased value' of degrees, is university still worth it? Here's the answer.
Choosing whether to go to university is a massive decision. 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 not 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, and have covered the main arguments for and against university being worth it. 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 uni, 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 about university.
The good news for students and graduates 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 found that graduates have a higher average salary than those who didn't go to uni.
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. This is especially true if you get a first-class degree or a 2:1.
So, for an idea of how much you could be earning in your first job, see our list of average graduate salaries.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. Finding a decent job is arguably harder than ever.
One thing you can do to stand out from the competition is to get a degree.
Of course, some jobs absolutely require you to have a degree, like becoming a doctor. Even some of these unusual degrees are very useful for getting a job in the relevant field.
But what you may not know is that many non-specialist jobs ask that you've been to uni, too.
In job vacancies, plenty of companies ask that applicants have a degree-level education. It's not impossible to get a job without being a graduate. But, when you're up against hundreds of other applicants, it can be tough.
And that's before we even get into the small matter of graduate schemes. These are popular employment routes for students after university. Graduate schemes often accelerate your career development.
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 great connections in the industry you're aiming for.
Your lecturers should be happy to give you some career guidance. They could even put you in touch with other experienced people 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). 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. These can include talks from industry experts about how to get into their line of work.
If you're considering a job that's relevant to your degree, these events can be super useful. They're unlikely to be something you could take advantage of if you don't attend 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 coursemates can prove to be incredibly useful.
It can be a great way to share tips on how to break into your chosen industries. This is especially useful if getting a 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 useful if you know what job you want to do after uni, but what if you're still unsure? Don't panic. You'll have picked up loads of transferrable skills as a student.
A degree is undoubtedly an impressive addition to your CV. But, 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. Given the focus on independent learning at uni, you'll almost certainly develop them during your degree.
You'll make new friends at university
University isn't all about the job prospects. It's also an opportunity to meet new people.
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 nowhere near as bad as you're imagining.
Remember that pretty much everybody else is as nervous about meeting new people as you are. They'll almost certainly be grateful if you make the effort to break the ice.
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 uni will 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 terrifying than the worst-case scenario you may be imagining.
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 of the UK's biggest student cities. But, nothing quite matches up to exploring the surroundings yourself.
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, uni lets you study what you're interested in.
Granted, there's no guarantee that you'll like every module of your degree. But, you should still like the subject as a whole.
For the first time ever (probably), you can look forward to the majority of your lectures. You can even pick the modules you're most interested in.
And, as one graduate explained, being around passionate students and academics can push you to develop:
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
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. This is 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 worth considering. 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.
It's important to make a distinction between how much university costs and what you actually pay.
Tuition fees, despite the big price tag, are arguably the least of your concerns. Most students attending uni for the first time can get a Tuition Fee Loan to cover the cost of tuition in full. Student Finance in Scotland essentially wipes this for many Scottish 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 our guide to Student Loan repayments, you borrow this money on some pretty generous terms.
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. The average amount borrowed is around £5,820 a year. But, this figure will vary significantly depending on a few factors.
Although this sounds like a lot of money, our research has found that it still falls short of the average student's living costs.
There's usually a shortfall between the size of the Maintenance Loan and the amount of money you need to get by. That's when you need to turn to alternative funding methods like parental contributions, part-time jobs and bursaries for students.
Having a degree doesn't guarantee you a job
As great as it is that uni is becoming more accessible, the one downside (if you can even call it that) is that more people have degrees. And if more people have degrees, simply having one no longer makes you stand out from the crowd like it used to.
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 for a degree. And it's hard to deny that getting a first will impress employers, regardless of what subject it's in.
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 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.
This doesn't have to matter if you don't want it to. If you don't need a degree for your chosen career, but you want to go to uni anyway, that's up to you!
But if you're keen to get working ASAP, 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
There's no guarantee that you'll remain interested in your degree at uni.
You may get a few months, or even a couple of years, into your course and decide it's not for you. That could be because it was mis-sold to you as having a stronger focus on something else, you want to pursue a different career, or you simply aren't interested anymore.
Or, you may struggle to settle in your new surroundings. Homesickness at university is a very real issue. While time and stepping out of your comfort zone can be the cure 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 from 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. You can read more about this in our Maintenance Loan guide.
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. The same is true of getting a degree.
The style of learning required at university is far more independent than at school. 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. Many tell us that a significant factor is the stress of having to make ends meet. For many others, being away from their usual support system of family and friends can be difficult.
The quality of mental health support services varies a lot from uni to uni. Also, the process of switching GP and getting a recommendation for a course of therapy can be an added stressor during an already difficult time. However, 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.
Financial difficulties, academic pressures and living with tricky housemates can all take their toll.
What age can you go to university?
As a general rule, the majority of undergraduate students start university around the age of 18.
There will obviously be those who have taken a gap year or two, or who have previously found themselves on the wrong courses or at the wrong uni and had to reapply. But it is most common to head to uni directly from sixth form or college at 18.
Some universities will accept applications from students under the age of 18. This is not common, as if you are under the age of 18 you are still classed as a child, and university is seen as an adult environment.
Because of the extra support involved in taking on students under the age of 18, in most cases, it would only be seen as a temporary situation, where students will be turning 18 during the first year of their studies.
Under normal circumstances, you would not be accepted into university at the age of 16. However, acceptions may be made for exceptional students and some universities offer foundation programmes for 16 year olds.
There is no maximum age for starting your studies and thousands of mature students head to university every year. 'Mature student' is used for any student over the age of 21 at the start of their undergraduate studies. In fact, more than half of mature students are aged between 21 and 24 and only 40% of mature students are over 30.
Is university worth it?
In our opinion, yes, it is worth going to university – but only if you think it's the right decision for you.
There are some strong arguments both for and against university being worth the money. 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.