One of the most asked questions in relation to university is “what’s the point of a degree?”. The answer however, is far from clear. Whereas in earlier times there may have indeed been a straightforward response and most would have attested that getting a degree will be the best road to success no matter what, nowadays the answer is more case specific.
In my eyes some of the arguments often mentioned surrounding issues with getting a university degree are quite subjective and can, in almost any case, be countered. However, the perceived benefits of a degree can only apply if you actively seek to make the most out of your time at university and are by no means a universal given.
The ‘value-for-money’ debate
A huge issue often raised is of course the cost of pursuing a degree. Opinions differ widely on whether or not one can get their money’s worth and seem to be split across subjects. Results from the 2015 BBC/Comres poll showed that students studying subjects entailing more contact hours (science/technology/maths/engineering) perceived their degrees to be more valuable. I find this correlation understandable but hugely problematic, as especially degrees in the arts require ‘making the most’ out of your time. Contact hours may be less, but you are encouraged to put in hours and hours of work on your own. If you take advantage of your extra time, you can make the most out of the flexibility and focus in-depth on topics that you are interested in.
From my experience as a Sociology student at least, it is indeed what you make of it that counts! As a final year student for example, I only have 6-7 contact hours at the moment, but the amount of work I need to undertake on my own is a lot more than that. My compulsory reading (the absolute minimum but by no means sufficient for excelling) takes me 2 hours at the minimum for each module-that’s an extra 6 hours. In addition to further reading, assignments and the like, I have to manage my 10.000-12.000 word dissertation, as well-including lengthy processes of research, and collecting and analysing data. Perhaps it should be noted that my departmental student handbook recommends that students can be expected to undertake at least 10 hours of study per module, including teaching hours (in my case this amounts to 8 hours of self-study per module in addition to timetabled hours, and adds up to 32 extra hours of study). I suppose the takeaway/bottom line here is that we shouldn’t approach university with the view that what we’re paying for is (exclusively) the teaching.
Another seemingly inescapable key debate surrounding the value of getting a degree is that of employability prospects. Linked to this issue are questions of early specialisation and transferable skills. A key question here is of course ‘will a degree significantly enhance my career prospects?’ Again, the answer to this will heavily depend on whether or not you can make the most of your time at university. Whilst pretty much anyone will undoubtedly gain a range of transferable skills from sticking with ‘only doing what’s necessary’, reaping the full benefits of a degree requires you to actively seek out experiences, and to go that extra mile in relation to your studies. Furthermore, work-experience outside of your studies is nowadays crucial in order to ensure decent career prospects. That said, there are still tons of jobs out there that require a degree before you can even apply, meaning that lots more doors are open when you have one.
Pursuing a degree has every potential to be a life-changing experience. The plenitude of services offered by universities, coupled with an abundance of extra-curricular activities such as volunteering opportunities, sports and societies, constitute the perfect foundation for growth of all kind. In order to make the most out of your degree, it is crucial to familiarise yourself with, and take advantage of, all the services offered by university – be it student support services, employability and careers services, other relevant events and workshops, or even just attending departmental (non-compulsory) seminars. Additionally, the more you utilise your free time not only for further study and academic development, but also for involvement in non-academic activities, the more likely you are to succeed after graduation.
Overall it can be said that undertaking a degree just for a degree’s sake isn’t the best idea. However, if you believe that university will not only enhance your career prospects, but more importantly if you seek intellectual challenges as well as a place to flourish as an individual, a degree definitely has every potential to be of value to you. The following quote was taken from Ken Ilgunas’ speech (author of Walden on Wheels) at his 2011 Duke University graduation, and sums up my outlook on the ‘usefulness’ of a degree:
“While I am more or less broke, in exchange for the education I have bought, I have received a wealth in return. I speak of the wealth of ideas, of truth, of wisdom—such is a currency without rates, a coinage that will not rust, capital I cannot spend. I may leave this place with empty pockets, but I shall carry this wealth with me whether I am young or old, at home or abroad, housed or homeless, rich or poor, till the end of my days.” – Ken Ilgunas