What Exactly Are We Paying For

Image Credit: Nathalie Rosales-Cheng

A few decades ago when our parents and grandparents were young, a university degree was a guaranteed ticket to a better life. Degrees were rare and special, a marker of a qualification that meant something, and put you on a pathway to a well-paid job. While perhaps all millennials wear rose-tinted glasses to think back to the days of being able to buy a house and provide for a family on a single salary, there’s a grain of truth which is hard to ignore. In this day and age, house prices have sky-rocketed, as have living expenses, and a university degree just doesn’t hold the same value and significance that it once did.

Today, there seems to be a straight forward pathway for children and young people. Primary school, then high school, graduation (gap year optional), head to university, graduate again and find a job. There’s not as much room for people to exist outside of this framework – we’re all part of a university system that is essentially a machine, churning out thousands of fresh graduates each year and tossing them into the work-force. Given the number of young people with degrees (we’re a dime a dozen), we’re being forced down the professional ladder, starting in unpaid internships and working our way up in a manner that would have been an outrage to previous generations. Statistics from The Australian regarding recent graduates are also suggesting that the degrees we study often turn out to be no help at all in the professional workplace. Admittedly, according to the Wall Street Journal, those of us with a tertiary degree earn about 75 per cent more than those who have only a high school diploma, and are vastly less likely to be unemployed, but the question arises of whether the thousands of dollars that university students are forking out each year are really worth it at all. Or, more accurately, what exactly are we paying for?

A university degree is now a minimum requirement for any professional job. In many ways, it has replaced the high school diploma as society places a higher importance on education. In my parents’ and grandparents’ day, not all kids finished high school; the number of students in the cohort dropped significantly from Grade 10 to Grade 11. To me, that’s unheard of. Graduating high school is a vastly more common today than ever before, and dropping out was not something I even considered, though experiences undoubtedly differ town to town and state to state. With the plethora of high school graduates evening out the playing field, more and more students started going to university, despite the fee increases, in an effort to get ahead. Essentially, there are three categories of education: for older generations it was Grade Ten graduate, High School Graduate and University Graduate. The university degree that you were handed at the end of your studies put you safely into the category of ‘Most Educated People’. But now, the number of people attending university has more than doubled, and for us, the three categories are High School Graduate, University Graduate and Post-Graduate Degree-Holder. It’s like everything has gone up a step and, all of a sudden, despite the higher level of education that we’ve achieved with a Bachelor’s Degree, we’re not in the group of ‘Most Educated’. We’re just normal.

A tertiary degree is not something that adds an extra dimension to your resume, but rather makes up the bare bones of it. It’s a screening process that employers use at the very beginning of the process – you’re not even part of the conversation without a degree. It no longer holds the value that it once did. The competition for jobs is also harsher, with internships, high GPAs and extra-curriculars significantly affecting your chances and more and more graduates are being forced to move back home before finding a job that can allow them to be self-sufficient. It’s an unfortunate truth, but the value of university degrees truly has decreased. Once upon a time a degree made you stand out from the crowd but, now, it seems like it’s the basic requirement for being part of the crowd at all.