Is a College Degree the Worst Investment You Can Make — or the Best?

Is a university degree “the worst investment a young person can make?”

That question was the focus of a surprising debate held at a recent education conference. And the people arguing for and against the motion were both devoted educators.

The venue was the Teacher Tech Summit, a two-day virtual event last month run by T4 Education, and co-hosted with the World Bank and the edtech investment firm Owl Ventures. EdSurge was asked to moderate the debate session.

The discussion ended up turning on a bigger question: What exactly is education for? Is it for helping students land the kind of stable jobs that will set them up for living a full life? Or is it primarily about a kind of personal growth that can’t be measured in dollars and cents, more about citizenship and a search for meaning and purpose than a paycheck?

Debating the motion were two dynamic and passionate educators: Kay Lack, who leads the education team at the U.K. software engineering school Makers Academy, and Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

For this week’s EdSurge Podcast, we’re bringing you the full audio of the debate.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: First each speaker will make a brief opening statement, starting with the speaker for the motion.

Kay Lack: Thank you very much. So today I’m gonna argue that a university degree is the worst investment a young person can make.

I think it’s important to define a few terms. First, university. A university is one model. Universities generally cover a wide range of subjects, focused on an academic field, say mathematics or computer science. Secondly, investment. Investment is money, but it is also time. In most cases, a university degree takes three to four years of study.

And the argument is that if a university degree is a good investment, it ought to be substantially more valuable than the opportunity cost. What you could do with those [three or four years], and what you could do with the fee money and taking into account the risk. My argument is that the risk is too high, and the returns too low.

I’m going to talk to you about two fields, both of which have very high demand: computing and medicine.

Firstly, computing. So a 2018 report from the USA Center for Educational Statistics found that computing graduates had some of the highest median earnings at $70,000 a year and rising over the past 10 years. However, the subject has some of the worst rates of graduate unemployment at 5.6 percent, and has been totally stagnant over that past decade. And that’s worse than the humanities, English and finance degrees in the U.K.

A report by the higher education statistics authority found that after 15 months, 20 percent of graduates felt they weren’t using what they studied in their current job. And only 41 percent were working in [a computing-related] field. In the Philippines, 20 percent of recent computing graduates weren’t employed. And of those that were employed, 30 percent felt the curriculum wasn’t relevant to their jobs.

Secondly, medicine where universities have a monopoly on training in most countries. In the U.S., medical degrees have a 98 percent employment rate, and in the U.K. and 97 percent had jobs within the field within 15 months. That’s 97 percent for medicine versus 41 percent for computing.

What can possibly explain this puzzle? It isn’t like medicine is so much easier than computer programming, and it isn’t like software engineers are in such little demand to explain that difference. But it’s not so difficult to understand. Medical degrees are different. They have a clinical phase of two to three years where you work in real world institutions with real patients under supervision from experienced professionals. And by the time you come to apply for your jobs, you’ve already done it for at least two years. It’s not complicated. It’s basic educational thinking: You learn what you do.

The medical degree is essentially a job with training to do that job. There’s another word for a job with training, it’s called an apprenticeship. It in my view is the best form of tertiary education that there is. So you get a job with pay, without fees. That includes training in partnership with a training provider.

Germany uses this model with over 60 percent of young people taking an apprenticeship. Over the pandemic, OECD countries saw youth unemployment spiked to 18 percent. And it’s still over 10 percent in Germany where over 60 percent of young people are taking this form of training. [There, unemployment] went from 5 to 6 percent.

This gets results at a society scale. This is a system that works and other countries are catching up. The vocational training and apprenticeship revolution is upon us in the U.K.

A report in 2015 found that level four apprenticeship. That’s two years of work and study provides lifetime earnings comparable to a university degree. And for level five apprenticeships it’s even higher, after the university debt is taken into account.

Universities are a bad investment for society and young people in financial terms, but most importantly, in skill terms. With a few notable exceptions, they do not train skills that students need to gain economic independence. And to advise that young people take such a risk with their futures at such a high financial cost can only be irresponsible.

My advice to young people is to invest in their education and to get a job with training built in. Thank you.

Thank you. Now the opening statement against the motion.

Mamokgethi Phakeng: A university degree can never be the worst investment. Despite its cost, university education remains one of the best investments.

The value of a university education is not so easy to quantify and talking about what people earn is actually misleading because a university degree pays off in ways that are not strictly financial. In addition to the tangible value of your future income, there are many intangible benefits that cannot be quantified in monetary terms. And these include learning how to learn, critical thinking, independence, improved social skills and general skills such as working in teams and developing good working habits.

Students are exposed to new ideas, and they also learn about strengths and interests that they didn’t even know they had. Really it’s about exploring—about learning about growing. The goal is not to come out the way you went in.

Note that I make reference to university education rather than just a university degree because in my view, I want to argue that university education is so valuable that even if one does not graduate the lessons and the growth remains.

A university is a free and safe space for ideas and debate. It’s probably the only free and safe space left for ideas and debate. It is important for people to have platforms where ideas are contested. It is important for those spaces to have academic input and research resources, and universities are the best places for quality debate. Other alternatives, such as social media or YouTube, do not serve this role because they create discourse silos.

A university is also the best place to acquire social and cultural capital. And this is indispensable for the poor. We should never talk about access to jobs as if we live in an equal world. In this unequal world we live in, variables such as socioeconomic class, race, gender, nationality and sometimes religion often determine how people are valued or how the knowledge and skills they have are valued or not. So if you are poor, you need a university degree more than anyone.

I say that to poor young people all the time, having grown up poor myself, if you come from a poor family, you need a university degree because one of the greatest rewards that a university degree will give you is valuable social and cultural capital. I would never have it if I didn’t go to university, and you need it because you don’t get it at the dinner table, you don’t get it anywhere in the township or whatever informal settlement area that you live in.

And that social and cultural capital you accumulate at university can be exchanged for economic capital via social networks, skills, values and behaviors that point to high-paying jobs. I mean the network that I have right now—my go-to people for references and anything—I got at university.

Of course, everyone has got social and cultural capital and deploys it on a daily basis to navigate society, and all forms of social and cultural capital are valued. But the hard truth is that they’re not valued equally. And so for the poor, the university is the only place they can acquire the kind of social and cultural capital that is valued.

And I can tell you, it doesn’t matter how many bootcamps you have, if you do not have that social and cultural capital, your chances of accessing those jobs Kay is talking about are very slim.

Thank you. So now I get to ask each of you a question. Kay, EdSurge recently published an investigation into the views of young people toward college and career pathways, and one thing that was clear is that college is a space for young people to try a career path before locking into it. And those who go to alternative programs may not get that chance to explore and try out their dreams. So do you worry that if a young person goes to something like a coding bootcamp and finds they don’t like coding, are they out of luck and have to start over in education?

Lack: I do think about that actually. A lot of my students have ended up on that path where they’ve come to their late twenties. They’ve done something for a while and they’ve found that they’ve reached the limit of what it is they can achieve in their current career. And then they change, and they do something else.

And I would argue that the idea of a university as a place where you can try something out without consequences is not actually a reality. It’s a place where you can commit to a very large financial cost in a way that you will then be burdened with, for a long, long time. If we think sort of in raw terms about vocational training, vocational courses are often much shorter than university degrees.

And in the case of apprenticeships, they come with no financial burden. And in fact, they come with a salary as well. So I would say … you have a larger number of options outside the university than in it. Even if it’s things like traveling, gap years, short courses, different kinds of jobs, you open up a lot of opportunities for yourself by not going to university and perhaps deciding to [go back to college] in your late thirties … and still get the benefit of both.

Vice-chancellor, I heard your argument that a young person going to college, even if they don’t complete a degree, is altered and benefits. But it is a point of discussion these days about how many students never get a degree that might give career benefits but have burdensome debt that holds them back. Would you be open to providing more options at your university for, say, shortening the four-year degree by a year or offering other shorter-form options for those who may not feel they need the full degree program?

Phakeng: Let me start with the question about those who don’t complete.

If that were not the case, we wouldn’t have a Mandela. Nelson Mandela went to Wits University and spent six years, but didn’t get a degree.

It is at Wits where he was introduced to politics—he got steeped in politics. It is where he, for the first time in his life, got to interact with young people like him from different races who cared about the same thing in society. It opened up his mind, not just his eyes.

Now, if university education was that useless, even when you don’t get a degree, we wouldn’t have had Manela.

Would we be willing as the University of Cape Town to consider other models? Of course we would. I mean, the world is changing, and any university that sits and does not consider how the world is changing is a university in decline.

Not only are we looking at whether different degrees [could be] packed up differently. We are probably the only university—maybe on the continent, probably in the world—that allows a medical student to complete a master’s degree while doing their [medical] degree. They can specialize in another science area. We’ve got interrupted studies for students whose studies are interrupted and can do other things, but building on the education that they already have from university, even if they didn’t get that degree.

So of course the best university keeps rethinking, reimagining and reworking their programs.

Now each debater can make a short closing statement.

Lack: I went to university. I experienced some of the benefits that my debating partner here has outlined. There are two key weaknesses to our argument. You’ve probably, like me, trained people. You may have led teams. You’ve certainly had a career of your own. Do you buy this line about universities being uniquely enriching?

I think much like God, personal growth doesn’t exist just in a building, but everywhere you care to look for it. I see no reason why any other form of training should have any less than universities. In fact, I see it in my own every day.

Secondly, enrollment in higher education has increased from 30 to 40 percent globally in the past 10 years. And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen an improvement in the state of public discourse.

We seem to find conflict wherever we look. But it is the key role of university and society to help us make sense of our world, and the time in which we find ourselves to be that place, a free exchange of ideas and genuine critical thought, a place to change your mind. It’s such an important role.

And in the story of Mandela, of course, he goes on a very different journey. He studies across his whole life and gets his degree later in life. And I wish universities could be that right now. They’re not; instead, you should be choosing vocational training, education and employment, and continuing that growth of study. I hope in a renewed university sector that will be able to give the world what it needs in this century.

Phakeng: Here’s the thing: Despite the rising costs of higher education and what many reports and Kay would have us believe, investing in a university degree remains a solid and profitable investment.

I mean, students who take out loans to pay for studying at university have debt to repay when they graduate. And so I understand the concerns about the cost of a university degree. However, these students have still made a smart financial decision because not all debt is the same. There is good debt, and there is bad debt. And a university degree is definitely good debt—not only for the individual, but also for society.

Kay thinks all we want when we finish high school is to make more money. No, some of us, many of us, a growing number of us want to make a difference in society.

And so we leave those high-paying jobs and go for jobs where we can make a difference.

Kay says medicine is just a apprenticeship. I wonder if she’d be willing to get someone to do heart surgery on them who never studied cardiology. I doubt it.

University, just a place of ideas, is absolutely irreplaceable. That’s where students have a voice. If we get students only into a place or a pipeline of getting jobs only, then you will have a situation where students are cowed or young people are docile. They’re quiet. They’re uncritical, only focused on getting a job. Then our world will be poorer because if students can raise their voice, students can be in a safe space where they learn new things. They hear about new things. They get invigorated and they raise their voices then active citizens, citizens elsewhere in society will not be heard and the establishment will stay comfortable.

And we know that the establishment in most societies often grows numb with time. It becomes deaf to the voices of its powerless majority and dismissive of the powerless. And it’s at university where the establishment is challenged. Because the first order of business for the establishment is always self-preservation for themselves. And university environments challenge those spaces. So it is indispensable. Thank you.