The Sunday Times: The Real Value of a University Degree

Amanda Foreman (lower right) at Sarah Lawrence College in 1988

In four days’ time several hundred thousand 18-year-olds will be having a collective freakout. Finally, after weeks of sweaty waiting, they will receive their A-level results. You may be one of those waiting. Or you may be one of the relatives and friends bracing themselves for impact. Either way, there’s a date with destiny at midnight on Thursday. That’s when all first-choice university applications will have cleared the system.

More people are going to university than ever. Thirty years ago it was about 14% of 18- to 21-year-olds. Today it’s more like 30%. You would, think from the sheer numbers, that going to university has become a “no brainer”, if that’s the right term. But no. Many brains (along with some with only the appearance of brains) are saying the opposite. In fact, the value and purpose of a university education is under intense, often hostile, scrutiny.

As soon as the dust settles from results day, there’ll be press stories about the high-flyers who turned down places in favour of an apprenticeship, a modelling career or the chance to take up one of the financier and PayPal co-founderPeter Thiel’s $100,000 fellowship grants to eager-beaver entrepreneurs. I say good for them.

Bill Gates dropped out of university, and Kim Kardashian never went, and they’re both doing just fine. It isn’t necessary to have a degree to become a successful, upstanding and productive member of society. Or, in Kim’s case, just really rich.

Leaving aside the siren examples of people who have been able to parlay their one big asset into a huge fortune, the main argument against getting a degree is that it’s not worth it.

Last year the insurance company Aviva released a report on the financial health of recent graduates. In many cases the “financial hangover” from three or four years at university is taking as long as 12 years to clear. That’s some headache.

Of the graduates who responded to Aviva’s survey, 37% admitted that the scale of their debts made them wish they had never bothered with a degree.

Student debt is a real and troubling problem. The “starving student” may be a cliché but it’s not a myth. The government and universities should start admitting that there’s a big problem in the way the financial burdens are piling up. And we need a root-and-branch look at why the costs keep on rising.

More than that, however, they need to put the kibosh on the idea that there’s a simple cash nexus between knowledge and money. We know that there isn’t a simple relationship between degrees and success. Lots of very clever and talented people have very low incomes.

Simply arguing that a degree is important or “worth” it because, on average, it will lead to an extra £9,500 a year in salary is beyond pathetic. It’s as anti-intellectual as the critics who question the point of university in the first place. Frankly, it’s a tacit admission of defeat before the troops have even left the barracks.

However, to those who pooh-pooh a university education on the basis of its poor monetary value, I offer myself as counter-evidence. Call me exhibit A. I have three degrees, including a doctorate from Oxford. I studied the liberal arts at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, the humanities at Columbia, New York, and 18th-century British history at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. My subjects are the ones that generally receive the loudest calls to be axed.

Well, I turned my “boring” PhD thesis on an “obscure” woman, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, into a biography that became an international hit that has sold more than a million copies. I am by no means unique: Zadie Smith, Richard Mason, Bret Easton Ellis, Michael Chabon and Veronica Roth all began successful writing careers while studying for liberal arts degrees.

So let’s leave the cost-benefit analysis of a university degree to the accountants and look at the actual value of higher education. The late rocker Frank Zappa summed up the point of university in a few pithy words: “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” This was before Tinder, of course. But Zappa was right about something fundamental about universities — possibly more than he knew. Yes, they are places of learning. But, as people have been complaining for hundreds of years, there are times when you wouldn’t know it.

The young Lord Byron had assumed he would be surrounded at Cambridge by hundreds of kindred spirits who all shared his thirst for knowledge. What a joke, he wrote in a letter to his solicitor in 1805: “Study is the last pursuit of the society.” The fellows did nothing but “drink, dispute and pun”. The students were worse.

Clearly little had changed in essence by the time the writer Bill Bryson went to university in Iowa in the early 1970s: “The principal concerns . . . were sex, smoking dope, rioting and learning. Learning was something you did only when the first three weren’t available.” Bryson dropped out after two years.

It may seem a little counterintuitive at this stage, even counterproductive, to argue that learning isn’t the point of university. Please don’t mistake me. Learning is not not the point either. But, at the core, it’s thinking.

Back when universities were young, so young that they were not called universities but cathedral schools and studia generale and such, there was a French philosopher named Peter Abelard. His career as an academic has a modern flavour to it: he slept with his prize student, a young woman named Heloise, and made her pregnant. The scandal cost him his career (briefly) and his testicles (permanently). However, that’s another story.

Abelard eventually returned to teaching in Paris, at a cathedral school that would evolve into Paris University. There he wrote a book called Sic et Non, or Yes and No. Its premise was revolutionary. He formulated 158 religious questions, and then offered two sets of diametrically opposed answers. His colleagues were shocked. Instead of teaching answers, Abelard was using knowledge to steer his students towards independent thought.

Abelard’s Christian colleagues didn’t go down without a fight. They succeeded in having his teachings condemned by Pope Innocent II in around 1140. But his idea of the true purpose of higher education was here to stay. Despite continuous attempts by authorities, academics and even students themselves to eradicate intellectual freedom, it lives and thrives at university. Thanks to Abelard, the true gift of university is a shot at autonomy.

This gift manifests itself in many ways. Thinking is only one of them. Thought leads to questions, questions lead to inquiry and inquiry leads somewhere unknown. And that’s the nub of it. Three (or four) years at university is your personal journey. Seriously. Your whole life up until that point was written for you, and to a great extent you will be forced back into the larger narrative of society once you leave. But for a short time you have the absolute freedom to be the heroine of your own story and to write it as you see fit.

Look at any photograph of someone from their university days, including mine, and you’ll say, “What? Who did they think they were?” The answer is that we were busy finding out. Exploration entails experimentation, and that’s a good thing.

Again, I refer to myself as exhibit A. At 18 I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to university. More to the point, no university was interested in having me. My particular talent involves being able to digest vast quantities of unrelated information into an idiosyncratic, long-form narrative. This is not something that goes down well at A-level. Even after retakes, the highest I could manage in my “best” subject was an E in English.

Two years and 35 failed applications later, I finally got a break. Sarah Lawrence is what they call a “non-traditional” college of higher learning. There are no grades, exams or curricula. The students make a contract with their dons regarding what they will study and aim to achieve, and then go for it. I was extremely dubious about a place that was willing to accept a loser like me. For a time I considered floristry instead.

If I have one regret about my time at university, it’s that I never joined a band. I tried lots of other stuff, some legal, some not. But I never had the courage to test the outer limits of my dreams. I think I was too busy trying to rewrite the narrative of my life until then. We all make mistakes. My children now groan at me whenever I sing hymns too loudly. My response is to sing even louder.

Caesar went to Turkey. He came; he saw; he conquered. I went to university. I came; I thought; I changed. So will you. Good luck.

Among Amanda Foreman’s books is Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, published by Harper Perennial at £12.99

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