As tuition costs continue to rise, so do questions about the usefulness and importance of a university degree. Most former American students I know, including myself, are mired in student loan debt. I also know doctors from other countries – Canada and Germany specifically – who have experienced living with large debt, although the return on their investment seems higher. While I am thankful that I was able to continue my education by borrowing from the government, I regularly question my decision to obtain a master’s degree in an economy where international jobs are scarce and unpaid internships abound. I should know – I have taken three such internships. But does this mean that university isn’t worth it?
Let’s look at the argument that university is unnecessary. There are some high-paying jobs that don’t require a degree. Real estate agents, restaurant owners, electricians and a number of mechanic and repair occupations require job training instead of a four-year degree.
In Vietnam, I know several business entrepreneurs who didn’t study business, a marketing expert who studied music, and successful artists and designers who are self-taught. The Washington Post reported that only 27% of college graduates have a job related to their major, and Forbes this year called student loan debt “a $1.3 trillion crisis”. It’s possible to be happy and successful without a degree.
But there are two sides to every story. The 2016 College Board reported that the average student borrower pays off their loans and recoups the money from being out of the workforce by the time they are 34. US averages show that people with a bachelor’s degree make 67% more than those with just a high school diploma. Chances of being unemployed are also twice as high for those without a four-year degree. And jobs are getting more technical and specific. Georgetown University recently predicted that “by 2020, 65% of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training.”
Universities also leads to resources, contacts, internships and skills like coworking, public speaking, and researching and writing. University provides a unique environment to develop as a person and meet like-minded professors and students. University life can be enriching and full of growth if done right.
When all is said and done, I wouldn’t trade my university years and experience for anything. If I could do it all again, I would focus more on a few things: 1) Getting published 2) Taking some IT and marketing classes, which I think are useful in any field these days, and 3) Being a stronger networker and staying in touch with people whose careers I admired. My independent streak has gotten me pretty far in life, but I know now that it’s important to use connections when they present themselves.
Shannon Brown works in international education in Ho Chi Minh City and has a background in social work, public heath, and early childhood education.