Eleanor writes on many topics, including parenting, single parenting, party and activity ideas, and career and home life.
I live in England, where young people who wish to obtain a degree typically take A Level exams at 18 following two years in sixth form, before heading off to university to study their chosen course.
There is no doubt that it is very expensive to go to university. My own son is about to take up a four year degree course at a respected university in the north of England, which will ultimately cost him approximately £36,000 in tuition fees and a further £36,000 in maintenance loans, because we are a family on a low income, making him eligible for the maximum loan amount.
Is University Worth It?
For some careers, a degree is obviously essential. Also, there are undoubtedly many people who have succeeded in life without obtaining any kind of degree. Entrepreneurs, property developers, police officers, those who have managed to work their way up from within a company, skilled labourers and tradespeople, skilled technicians — all of these are achievable without a degree. It all depends on what you want to do in life.
For me, though, not having a university degree has become my biggest regret. I flirted with the idea of university at 18, at a time when less young people followed that path than is the case today, but ultimately, I decided against studying for a degree.
I believe that going to university is definitely worth it if you are considering it as an option. Although you may have a large student debt at the end of it, you do not have to pay it back until you earn a certain amount of money, and the payments that you will have to make will be manageable. Here in England, student debt does not affect your ability to acquire a mortgage.
To get an idea of how much you will have to pay back, there are online student loans calculators that can give you an idea. It's worth noting that, even though the amount owed is huge, most students do not end up paying their entire loan back. At the time of writing, student loans in UK are written off 30 years after repayment begins. The concept of the loan is probably worse than the reality.
More Employers Now Request a Degree
When I scour job sites such as Indeed — which I do on a regular basis — it is extremely difficult to find a suitable job for which I meet the requirements and which also pays enough for me to run a household on my own. So many positions now request degree-level applicants, that it is a common requirement even when the necessary skill set doesn't imply that it should be. One example is nursing, which used to be a career for which you could train on the job. But there are many other examples in many different fields.
Even the insurance giant in my local area, for which my ex partner and even my own mother used to work, now employs graduates for positions that they once filled with school leavers. It seems that, because so many more young people actually have a degree now, the job market has evolved to reflect that in its requirements.
University Broadens Your Options
Not everyone needs a university degree to get on in life. However, being a university graduate does broaden your options, not only immediately but in the future too. Some degrees, such as physics and maths, are sort after by many different kinds of employers because completing such a degree indicates that you are generally a good problem solver and would therefore be an asset in many different fields. Put simply, holding a degree opens doors that might otherwise remain firmly shut. Many positions require an unspecified degree, even when it doesn't seem justified — without one, you won't even be considered. If you want to be a teacher, for instance, you will need a degree to be considered for a teaching programme, even if you want to teach younger children.
Is Your Degree Valuable?
Not all degrees are awarded the same credibility by employers. Your degree will be valuable to you if it offers you a gateway into the type of career or industry that you ultimately wish to pursue, or one that you would be unlikely to gain access to otherwise. It will be valuable to you if it allows you to earn a higher salary than you could without one. If you do not yet know exactly what career path to follow, it might be better to take a gap year or to follow a degree path that will offer you entry into lots of areas.
A Degree Can Give You Confidence and Appeal
Someone I know has just set up her own business running young children's movement and music classes in her local area. Prior to that, she has spent years working in preschools and other early years provisions. She studied for a degree during that time, in order to further her knowledge in the field of early childcare.
To set up her own business in her field of expertise was not something that my friend required a degree for in terms of knowledge — it was an entrepreneurial gamble — but she said it did give her the confidence to do so. What's more, being able to include her degree on her biography almost certainly makes her seem more professional to potential customers. Credentials can be all people have to go on, when they don't know you and haven't met you. Whilst a degree doesn't always make you 'better', it can give you appeal that can help you to launch a successful career or business start-up.
You Never Know What Life Will Throw at You
My lack of a university degree is something that has surely held me back through life in terms of what careers I could follow and my earning potential. However, this did not become a big issue for me until the breakdown of my relationship with my children's father. After twenty-one years together, he left me, meaning that I was suddenly the sole breadwinner in the home I shared with my children. And that is when I really began to regret never going to university.
Suddenly I needed the successful, higher paying career that I had never worried about before.
I had been content with lower paying jobs that added to the household finance pot in the past, but that was no longer enough. Even working full-time hours meant that I could only earn about half the income of my university-educated friends with professional jobs. What's more, while some of them were at the top of their careers and even thinking about scaling down some of their work commitments, I almost felt as though I had to start from the very beginning. Except, I could no longer afford the cost of study, or the time required, due to my responsibilities at home and my need to improve my finances in the short term, rather than three years down the line.
You never really know what life will throw at you. At a teenager, I was not encouraged to attend university by my family. My mother, in the late 50s and 60s, had managed to easily walk into office jobs and I really believed it would be that easy. She gave me the impression it would be easy. Even my father, an advocate of education, didn't consider it hugely important at the time.
But times have changed, divorce is more common, there are more single people living alone and most admin jobs these days don't pay enough to run a house and provide for a family. Not without a struggle. And certainly not when you are on your own.
My decision not to pursue a degree has meant that, aside from financial issues, I have struggled to find personal fulfilment through working. In fact, I have never held a job that I have really cared about, except in terms of getting paid and making friends with other colleagues. That has become something of a regret to me, since I often see positions I think I would really enjoy, only to find I cannot apply due to not being a graduate.
Despite my lack of degree, I am actually quite ambitious inside.
Unfortunately, this realisation came to me relatively late in life. When I was still in primary school, a teacher told my parents that I should become an English teacher, due to the high level of competence I displayed in his class. It took me thirty years to decide that this would be something I would enjoy, yet I cannot study for a PGCE without first acquiring a degree. That's four years of expensive study at a time when I am the only earner at home and heading swiftly towards the end of my fifth decade. Whilst not an impossible feat, the very thought of it is enough to turn me completely grey. It is something of a regret that I did not make different decisions in the past.
My ultimate passion is writing and my goal is to build up a writing portfolio together with an adequate income. Writing is something you do not, in theory, require a degree for. However, without one, your options are limited. Perhaps I might be lucky enough to write a future bestseller. However, even if that was the case, most books are not bestsellers and most writers have other jobs as well. I would need a source of income to oversee me during the time it took to write and the two years or more that it took to become a purchasable product. And then I'd have to write subsequent bestsellers. It's a massive gamble.
Most, if not all, journalism jobs require a degree, including magazine journalists. The accepted alternative is extensive experience; however, that is difficult to achieve without the degree. It's a vicious circle. Even trainee journalist posts prefer degree applicants. Less well known internet start ups may not require a degree, but they are often unpaid or low paid, offering exposure only.
Why I Didn't Go to University
It's hard to send yourself back in time and ask the younger you why you didn't make a certain decision.
In my case, I think it was ultimately a lack of confidence, combined with a lack of guidance and support. Advice from school careers guidance was sorely lacking back then, and I was not encouraged to feel it was a path I should pursue. Getting a job, any job that paid a monthly wage, was considered acceptable.
In retrospect, it was also partly due to my tendency to 'live in the moment' and not worry too much about the future. When you are relatively young, the future can seem far away and unimportant. The trouble is, it eventually catches up with you.
Looking Forwards is Essential
None of us knows what the future holds. Through my twenties and thirties, I made the mistake of considering only the present when it came to my career. As long as I was managing at the time, it didn't seem important. I met someone when I was quite young and we started a family and managed to buy a house. But that was only possible because of my partner's career. On my own, I wouldn't have stood a chance.
Planning for a different future, even one that I didn't envisage, would have made my current situation as a single parent so much easier. Making sure I was financially independent, no matter what happened, should have been an essential goal. It would have been insurance for the future; for those times when life becomes more challenging. Yet, somehow, I didn't give it enough importance. And, as the years passed, it simply became more difficult to make that leap.
Qualifications Can Matter
Even when you have an established career, you can be caught out without recognised qualifications.
My ex partner moved from the UK to the US a few years ago. He had been working as an IT Consultant for many years, and had learned primarily 'on the job', whilst employed by a major UK insurance company when they offered him a sideways move.
However, when he moved to the US for other reasons, he was not able to gain employment in his field of expertise because he didn't have a degree. His lack of degree meant he wasn't even able to apply for any positions, despite two decades of experience.
Having at least a Bachelor's degree can open doors and keep them open when you need it. It's not the be-all-and-end-all — and not everyone plans to move overseas — but when you are in your twenties, it's almost impossible to tell where you might be in your forties.
I know a few people who studied for a degree in their 30s and even early 40s, in order to improve their career prospects. It's always an option. It is not, however, the easy option. By that time in life, as with the people I know, you may have children, bills, a mortgage or rent to pay. Studying might involve working late into the night after you come home from your day job. You might have to pay for it whilst also paying for your home and all your bills. It won't be easy.
Why I Encouraged My Son to go to University
I encouraged my son to apply for university because I thought it was the best path for him. That is not to say I pressurised him - he had already decided that was what he wanted to do. He applied to study physics, which will open him up to a wide range of careers, as it is viewed by employers as a versatile degree. He doesn't know if he wants to be a physicist or work in finance, but his degree will be valuable for either.
If my son had wanted to be a plumber, or an electrician, or something more practical, I would have fully supported him in that decision since they are both stable careers with high earning potential. But he knew that kind of work wasn't for him as he leans more towards academic pursuits and does not enjoy practical work. He is also quite changeable, so to narrow his options to one set of skills would not have been a good idea for him.
University is not for everyone. It is an expensive journey that involves dedication and several years of hard work. It is not necessary for every career path. For me, however, it is a path I wish I had taken and which would have benefited me years later.
Eleanor's Words (author) from Far and Wide on October 23, 2019:
@Stive - that's true, The Open University could certainly be an option and a very good choice if working around children etc. In fact, my dad got his degree this way 36 years ago as he hadn't acquired many qualifications at school. I still would have done things differently if I could turn back the clock though - 'in hindsight' and all that.... Thanks for bringing it up as a great alternative!
Stive Smyth from Philippines on October 21, 2019:
Hi Eleanor. Nice read. The Open University is always an option. But it does take a sizable chunk of willpower, some top-level time management with priority-juggling, and, although courses are reasonably priced, they are not cheap.