The value of a bachelor’s degree

Now in my fourth and last year of undergrad, I look around me and see some people I know getting into professional schools, like medicine, dentistry and pharmacy, while others decide to continue their education in graduate school for either a master's degree or PhD. And the rest? Nervous, depressed and unsure of what to do next. While I hardly ever hear the first two groups complaining about and questioning the value of their bachelor's degrees, the last group — who are the majority — wonder why they are here: "What's the value behind my education, when I'm graduating with thousands of dollars in debt, with no real employment prospect in sight?" "A bachelor's degree is a scam, a rip-off." "Why did I decide to go to university in the first place? I should've gone to community college or the trades to learn some practical skills that will actually help me find a job." A friend even told me about this news segment from ABC's 20/20. It aired this past January. Thanks for the encouragement, ABC. Thanks a whole lot. Don't you think this is just a tad bit frightening? Especially to a BSc candidate like myself who is actually graduating in the middle of a severe economic downturn? It seems that the world has lost its faith in those holding bachelor's degrees. It's blasting this message full-throttle: A bachelor's degree is worth nothing. Your time, effort and money spent are worth nothing. You made a huge mistake. Now you pay for it by being an unrecognized and unemployed member of society, while the school pockets your money. The saddest part is, regardless of whether students are actually being influenced by the media, many are nevertheless bitter about their decision to get a bachelor's degree. On the internet, there are angry Facebook statuses and hopeless Twitter updates, not to mention pages and pages of personal blogs displaying students' deep anguish and disappointment. Still, despite the seeming lack of faith from society and the reality of question marks regarding my own post-grad life, I don't regret my education. I can't say that these past few years have been a breeze, and I can't promise you that I'll make good money after I graduate in June, but if I could go back and choose again whether to do it, I would say yes (and I don't say this lightly, especially after all the GPA-associated horrors of the past few years). Despite the occasional complaining and sometimes tear-jerking stress, I do like it here. I like that my peers are overwhelmingly talented and intelligent in their own unique ways, so that there's always someone to look up to and learn from. I like that my professors are brilliant minds and experts in their fields, so I know I'm learning from the best. I like that there are always opportunities on campus to do things, whether it's for personal enjoyment (like Hart House's Five Buck Lunches) or for academic enrichment outside the classroom (like the recent Gairdner lecture series, where I shook hands with one of this year's Nobel Prize laureates, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn). I like that even though I am just a student, I have the means, resources and support to make my voice heard and make a difference. Above all, though, there's one thing that makes academia so very attractive: the omnipresent, heavy air of ideas that we all breathe. It's refreshing and stimulating. I think that anyone who is doubting the value of an undergraduate education — or in fact, any type of education — should think long and hard about these two questions: What, according to my personal beliefs, is the value of education? And what is my purpose in choosing to pursue this education? I feel terrible for those who think that their undergraduate education has been a waste of time. Clearly, these people see school as a means to an end, equating a bachelor's degree with a glorious job of some sort, which is (naively) associated with higher earnings. This is some seriously misguided thinking, my friends. For one thing, if the dominant purpose of education were simply to learn a set of specific hands-on, employable skills, then not only would the centuries of knowledge accumulated by scholars trail off into extinction, but we'd all just become machines that are set to operate 40 hours a week or more, simply fulfilling the need to survive. There would have been no development of vaccines, no thinkers developing welfare programs for the underprivileged, and no one to preserve and write canonical literature, because nobody would grasp its importance and contributions to humanity. Simply put, your views on education are directly proportional to what kind of person you aspire to become, and are linked to your definition of success. If you believe, deep down, that you'd be satisfied just having a bunch of skills so you could find a job and make a decent living, then I agree with you: your university has probably ripped you off very badly. But if you believe in the slightest way that there is more to life than just having an income, then by obtaining your bachelor's degree you've set yourself up to eventually reach a level of fulfillment. True, a bachelor's degree probably isn't a direct ticket to the good life you've always dreamed about, but in the majority of cases it's an appropriate and necessary start. * Our generation — Generation Y — is defined by instant gratification. We want it now and we want it fast. As a result, the need to reach glory becomes so consuming that we become impatient with the chores and details. Starting from the bottom and making our way up, bit by bit, can therefore be a daunting task, because anything less than the top feels pointless. However, if you realize this pitfall early in the game (like now), you are still in a good position to go far. Remember to be patient, and take one small step after another. One day, you'll look back and realize that your bachelor's degree, like many other steps you've taken along the way to reach the top, was worth it. - Lucy * I know. Maybe you are in desperate need of a higher GPA and lower debt. Maybe what I've said just seems like flowery words that don't actually help with your current situation. I understand how tough life can be, but I believe that it's also fair. Nothing is hopeless — if you are doing badly in school, it doesn't mean that you'll necessarily graduate with a ton of debt and no future. My mom always tells me that studying to get good grades is the one thing in life that's actually easy to do, and it's true. Think about everything you'll have to deal with once you get out of academia — amidst the relationships and politics, success becomes entangled with uncertainty. So don't give up. Accomplishing the GPA you want is a doable task. Don't let this one thing ruin the education that you've worked so hard to obtain in the first place.

10 comments on “The value of a bachelor’s degree

  1. That was very well said Lucy! As a mature student just applying to university, (UT) being one of them, many people think I’m just wasting my time! I know I may be a few years behind than other students but it’s never too late! Getting an education shouldn’t be about how much one can earn but because we really want to learn more!

  2. Some bachelor’s degrees actually do teach employable skills. Engineering and commerce are two examples. Math majors also tend to find decent jobs in the financial industry.
    If you entered university in hopes of learning practical, employable skills, and chose an artsy major, THAT’s when you screwed up.

    Of course I am not saying engineeringn or math degrees teach practical skills alone, but that is a different discussion.

  3. “One day, you’ll look back and realize that your bachelor’s degree, like many other steps you’ve taken along the way to reach the top, was worth it.”

    Do you have data to support that claim, or is it just wishful thinking?

  4. A very very long time ago when I was earning my bachelors degree, I was sitting on a bus going home. There was a gentleman sitting close to me. He was a little rumpled and didn’t appear to have much material wealth but his eyes were clear. I was feeling a little overwhelmed and it must have showed. He looked at the book I was reading and asked if I was in university. I said ‘yes’. He said ‘Dear, all is well. The world can take many things away from you, but it can never take away your education.’ He winked and went back to his newspaper. I never forgot that.

  5. @Ravs: The way I see it, what I wrote was neither a claim or is it wishful thinking. It’s logic. If you have faith in your future, have faith in your abilities and where they can potentially take you, logically you’ll end up seeing your current education as being beneficial one way or another.

    I actually talked to my parents about this topic the other day (Bachelors degrees and their values in today’s society). Both of my parents went through this whole ordeal. They both went ahead afterwards, to get their Masters and then PhD and both worked as professors in China. They basically said that your undergraduate education is an opportunity for you to look out of this “window” to see the world and study it, examine it and look at it in ways that interest you (whether it’s social sciences, humanities or the sciences). How much you see and take away is completely up to you–nobody is going to come up to you and tell you to look at this or look at that; in fact, you don’t even need to be here at all. They said that undergrad is, beyond a chance to gain more knowledge, a time of self-discovery and self-learning. You are influenced by being in this environment, in ways that might not be directly applicable to the real world or tangible (versus learning a practical skill for instance), but it will advance your way of thinking and looking at problems and the world, and in turn, advance how you look at yourself and what you want out of life.

    Whether you do or do not is up to you. People vary in terms of their abilities to perceive the bigger picture, and in terms of how much patience they have to ponder life’s big questions. Some students get through these few years not thinking too much at all–I mean, we all have a different set of priorities and nobody can tell anyone else how to think or what to think about. Again, it all comes down to what you hope to get from your education and why you think you are here.

  6. Ravs: I think it’s safe to say there are actual people in existence who value their bachelor’s degree. For those people, the statement will ring true, as it may for anyone who is able to look at their actions throughout life and find any inklings of value, however small, in each of them. All that learning-and-growing-as-a-person jive. Or maybe that too is ‘wishful thinking’.

  7. You know, apart from just the academic side of things, I’ve always included the other services and resources that the university provides as part of the university experience and counted it as part of the “value” of an undergrad degree.

    Each university has its own unique set of offerings for their students, and you learn from those things too. Going through sessions at CAPS helped me learn more about myself, the Career Centre gave me direction, and the extracurriculars I joined helped me build a set of practical, transferable skills even though I have an artsy major (well, 2 artsy minors, technically, and a sciency major).

    And you know what, take those experiences away, and I’d be a completely different person. Education isn’t just from textbooks (or powerpoints, or sparksnotes), and so I’m offended when people consider a bachelor’s as a sure way to more money.

    I know people who try to bulldoze through classes to get out of university as quick as possible, and I agree. If that’s your approach to post-secondary education, then of course you’re not getting your money’s worth.

    I’m under no illusion that the things I learned about in specific classes I will actually use in daily life (after all, I’m sure a career in business will not allow me to go on about the deconstruction and boundaries of human knowledge, or the dilemmas of reason and liberty), but looking at my rapidly growing student loan debt, I’ve never once thought that it “wasn’t worth it”.

  8. I completely Agree with Cheryl and Lucy, education to me is not only about recognition but it is also about personal development. I have never been interested in studies until I joined college. Being from an asian background, I consider myself to be a little behind as I lost a lot of credits by transferring, but if that and the debt I accumulate is the price I have to pay to further evolve the way I think, to contribute something positive to society which is a consequence of a good education, then so be it. Just like the man on the bus told Cheryl, no matter my financial status, I can still hold my own in an intelligent conversation and relate and communicate with others as an equal.

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