The Declining Value of a University Education

How many people do you know that went off to university with admirable academic goals and returned disillusioned, broke and scandalously unprepared to contribute anything productive to the economy? This has become the norm rather than the exception, but why?

In theory, we go to university to acquire knowledge which allows us to join the ranks of our desired profession. In practice, we stumble at the first step. At 18 years old, most of us have no idea of what life is actually like within any profession, and no reference system we could use to compare our various options. After high school, we find ourselves standing in the middle of an intersection, with trucks full of colourful brochures and happy-go-lucky ads rushing towards us from all directions. Our freedom of choice comes down to choosing which truck we want to get struck by.

Choosing your truck

After we have chosen our proverbial truck, we sign away the next 4 years of our life to an institution that spends an inordinate amount of money on sideshow attractions such as football teams and puts embarrassingly little effort into trying to keep up with the rapidly changing economy. During those 4 years, you take class after class of material you will never use, and you memorize passage after passage of information that you can just Google when you need it once in a blue moon. If you’re very lucky, 20–30% of classes will actually relate to what you end up doing for a living. And yet, this inefficient, obtuse, cast-a-wide-net-and-kill-all-the-dolphins institution gets to bill you a hefty sum. Why?

Because the guild you are trying to join won’t let you in unless you have a special piece of paper that says you sacrificed enough of your time and energy for the chance of joining their lofty ranks. They use a degree as a de-facto entry fee, thus limiting competition and keeping their prices high. Add to that the fact that most employers require a degree before they’ll even grant you an interview, and that your family will be so gravely disappointed if you don’t follow along with the program. What choice does that leave you?

Tech leads the way

Well, times are changing, and they’re changing too fast for the old system to keep up. What was relevant information 4 years ago may be antiquated by now. The new workforce doesn’t thrive on encyclopaedic knowledge, but rather on a propensity for constant adaptation. We have so much easy access to information, that the problem no longer lies in gathering data but filtering through the immense sea of it that is washing over us on a daily basis. Thus, the factors pushing us toward university education today are artificial rather than organic, and the market has a way of correcting for artificial implements. More and more companies are picking up the signals. Tech giants such as Apple and Netflix no longer require you to have a college degree, and are directing their hiring process towards what it should be in all facets of life — knowledge and learning ability trump any piece of calligraphy-decorated paper.

A pragmatic approach to education

If knowledge and financial security are what truly matters to you, then acquiring it faster and cheaper is a no-brainer. In one year of dedicated learning, you can acquire enough knowledge to start a career at a junior level. You can use the remaining three years to learn on the job and get yourself invaluable hands-on experience that will help you decide exactly which way you want to take your career. You can change jobs every year and experiment freely. This doesn’t require you to sacrifice your college hobbies. Make it a part-time job. Party away. Take a trip to Peru. Find love. There’s plenty of time for everything, since you just saved three years of your life. And, most importantly, you increased your chances of picking a career that you will actually enjoy and thrive at. The correlation between job satisfaction and happiness is not to be underestimated. Finding your path early will increase your chances of living a happy, full life, and give you the power to excel in other areas as well. Success breeds success.

Adapt or die

Of course, many industries are still not ready for this transition. Some professions are admittedly difficult to learn outside a formal setting (such as medicine) and some guilds are too strong for now (such as law), but times are certainly changing. Peer-to-peer learning and online classes are spreading like wildfire and disrupting what was once a very stable industry. Other young companies are focused on helping high school graduates find their career path through networking and hands-on experience. As employers change their policies and information becomes easier to access, universities must compete to attract promising students, not only against each other, but against companies scouring for talent. This means lowering prices, trimming costs, updating programs more often and more thoroughly — or fading away, ungracefully, into antiquity.

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