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Is A University Degree Worthless?
Reflections from a current undergrad.
Happy 4th of July to American readers!
I am pleased to feature the first guest post as part of the Multilevel Mailer. These guest posts are a way for me to showcase the writing and thoughts of my trainees on the current academic milieu with a larger, ideologically diverse readership outside of the academic bubble. Today’s guest post is written by a current mentee who took the opportunity to reflect on her thoughts regarding the value of a university degree today
It's no secret that there are glaringly obvious issues with higher education. Students are being saddled with a ton of debt and don't have well-paying jobs, meanwhile academics and professors are complaining that students don't want to learn anymore; they just want to get the degree and then leave.
The question of a whether a university degree is useless has been something that I think about occasionally, since it is a popular topic of conversation among university students. My name is Michelle Bi and I am working under the mentorship of Dr. Haltigan and I’m going into my third year of undergraduate neuroscience at a Canadian university. Although university tuition is a lot cheaper here than in America, we still face the worry of not being able to pay off student loans. In many cases, the return on investment for a university degree is so low for such a high price that it can make one question whether a university degree is useless.
To better understand the issue, one must first start with the ever-present dichotomy of passion vs. practicality. Ideally you should love your area of study, and the degree you earn from it should allow you to get a job you love, that also pays well. Notice how many conditions need to be satisfied for this to come true.
Hence, for a vast majority, that is a luxury that does not exist. There will be the people who hate their job and are just trying to get through yet another day, and there will be people who pursued their dream career but are now struggling to pay bills and student loans. The latter group had the unfortunate circumstance of being interested in a less financially stable, or less "employable" degree. For example, (although perhaps contrived), imagine a man who was interested in medieval literature and obtained a degree in it. Statistically speaking, he would not be likely to find a job that pertained specifically to his degree. Unless he was able to secure a position in academia as a professor or of some similar position (which is extremely tough), he most likely would end up working in a job completely unrelated to what he studied. In the end, he is not passionate about his current job, and he accumulated a ton of student debt. To add insult to the injury, he might have coworkers who obtained the same job with far lower educational attainment. Hence, it is easy to imagine why the sentiment of a university degree being "useless" exists.
Some may argue that the degree is not about the technical skills you obtain, but rather a demonstration of your abilities. A degree indicates that you can think critically, are able to communicate effectively and have a good work ethic. Hence, it's not about which degree you pursue, just that you have one. However, given that the price tag for a "certificate of competence" is tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, the idea is rather insulting. Now, to conclude that is unfair and does shortchange the quality instruction one receives at these institutions. Yet, from the perspective of students, who are stressed about their future and finances, the role of higher education is often oversimplified as a stepping stone to getting a job.
This idea leads to my next point about the previously mentioned group of people who are doing a degree out of practicality. These people generally pursue degrees along the lines of engineering, technology, business, medicine, law, etc. That is not to say that everyone in these fields is just doing it for the money, because there are people who do have a genuine passion for these disciplines. However, there will be people who are pursuing these fields because they may not have had a passion to begin with or had a passion and had to give it up in pursuit of a degree with better job prospects. Hence, they are more prone to experiencing burnout and career regret. Not to mention, even if you are lucky enough to be studying a well-paying discipline that you are passionate about, you cannot guarantee down the road you will still enjoy it. You could get bored, or it might not have been as glamorous as you imagined it to be. Moreover, if you have a passion that you turn into a career, the added stress of using it to pay bills might ruin your relationship with it. In other words, once a hobby becomes a job it is no longer a hobby.
So, to answer the question it's not fair to say that a university degree is useless. Evidently, there were useful skills, knowledge, connections and experiences gained. But was the degree "worth" it? For those who obtained the job from the degree (even if they don't like it), it most likely is, even if it doesn't feel like it. For those who were shortchanged a job, it is very hard to justify the steep price paid for it.
Although not directly related to the argument I wanted to bring up some thoughts after reading others' opinions about passion vs. practicality. I did not want to end off with the pessimistic conclusion that if you don’t enjoy your job, you’re doomed. If you don't have a "fun" job, but you have good financial stability, you can still live the life you want and pursue your hobbies outside of work. Lastly, it is the people you work with that make you love or hate your job. This sentiment brought me a bit of solace. If I end up with a career that I’m passionate about for life, then all the better, but if not, I can make peace with the fact that a job is a job and not the be all end all.