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Most students contemplate it. Quit or not to quit: That is the question!
University can be hard. It can often feel like your degree has no purpose and won’t get you a job at the other end. You see your friends who went into trades buying new cars while you’re eating Mac n’ Cheese and drinking wine out of a box.
Mature students feel it for different reasons: children to care for, mortgages to pay. Meanwhile, university debts are piling up.
In this blog, I explore five reasons why quitting university might not be the best idea!
1. You’ll make more money in the long run (statistically).
For decades, studies have shown that university graduates, on average, earn more than those who did not graduate.
A study in the UK found that female university graduates earned £250,000 more than their counterparts over their lifetime. Male university graduates earned more £170,000 more than their counterparts over a lifetime, too.
Another large study in the United States reported in 2018 that college graduates are 177 times more likely to earn $4 million over their lifetimes. The report also showed that graduates in the US, on average, earn $900,000 more than their non-university counterparts over their lifetimes.
In fact, a 2016 Canadian study showed that there is a long-term financial pay-off for all disciplines. This means that even the fine arts major can expect some benefits from their degree in the long run. You may graduate and spend an agonizing year or two continuing to work as a Barista, but the figures show you’re statistically more likely to thrive than if you dropped out of that degree.
These figures make the outrageous debts that current generations of students amass still sound worthwhile.
However, if a student drops out of university, their debts remain. In this case, dropping out is worse than never having started at all.
2. You will learn more than what’s in the books.
One possible explanation for the financial pay-off of university is that university provides substantial soft skills to all students.
The difficult thing for you is that you often can’t see these soft skills accumulating in the day-to-day grind of your studies. Students often go home and lament that they didn’t learn anything today, yesterday or even this semester.
In reality, you did learn some important things. It’s just that they were so subtly learned that you weren’t aware you learnt them. You learn just by being there. You learn how upper middle-class university educated people speak. You learn the right words to use, the right ways to say things, and the right skills to employ in professional situations. Priest et al. (2016) call this tacit skill development situated learning.
Even if you don’t feel like you’re learning, you are. And it’s powerful stuff.
Another important soft skill you’re learning is critical thinking. Sure, it might be a hard slog and you might feel like you don’t get it. But, you are getting there. You are. Every essay you write, exam you sit, and presentation you give requires you to employ critical thinking skills like formulating pros-cons lists, critiquing arguments, and questioning assumptions.
3. Learning is, by definition, hard, but it gets easier.
The brochures lied to you. They implied your days would be spent lying on the university green, playing hacky sack, and wearing a white lab coat.
The university wanted your money, so they failed to tell you something: Learning hurts!
In order to learn, students must go through a state of cognitive disequilibrium. This is the moment when the new information does not conform with your existing view of the world. It is literally a moment of confusion.
Here's two explanations for this:
Emotional Cycles in Learning
Kort (2002) argues that your learning is a cycle of emotions. You start out excited—elated even—at the idea of going to university. Before long you get nervous, confused, and tense when you realize that learning new information is not as fun as it seemed. This is the point where students tend to procrastinate—a lot! To fix old, outdated ideas in your mind and learn newer, more accurate information—what Kort calls "unlearning"—you get frustrated, even angry.
You might yell at your partner, consider dropping out, and make rash decisions you end up regretting.
But, Kort informs us that you get through it. When you conquer the task and see success on the horizon you begin to return to that elated, excited state just in time to start the learning cycle again.
Every discipline has really hard concepts that students struggle to master. Ray Land from Durham university calls these concepts "Threshold Concepts." In Economics it might be the idea of opportunity cost, in Physics it might be quantum theory. On this website, we specialise in essay writing as a "Threshold Concept."
All disciplines have a few concepts that are very hard to get your head around.
Fortunately for us, once you master a threshold concept, your university experience gets much easier. Land calls the threshold concept a portal into a new way of thinking: Once you cross through the "threshold," dozens of new ideas open themselves up to you.
If you’re contemplating dropping out of university, you might want to pause and consider whether maybe—just maybe—you’re simply at the low point in Kort’s cycle of emotions; or perhaps, you’re just a few lightbulb moments away from crossing Land’s threshold, where learning suddenly seems like a piece of cake!
4. Your degree gives you street cred.
Your degree provides you with what the French Sociologist Piere Bourdieu called Capital. This is the street cred of well-paid professional jobs. Here’s a few forms of capital that your degree gives you:
- Institutional Capital. By having that degree conferred upon you, future employers will look upon you as being inherently more valuable. Your resume rises above the non-graduate’s resume most of the time. By simply having that degree in hand, you’re a step closer to a cushy, well-paid job.
- Social Capital. You meet more successful, well-connected people at university who can help you get a job. Your professors have links to industry. Professors get regular emails from businesses asking them to suggest a student for a job. Your professor is also an ideal person to ask for a reference. Most of my final year, students ask me to provide references for them, and professors’ suggestions can go a long way (that’s why you need to make sure you build good relationships with your professors). Social capital extends to your peers, too. You might not get that great job, but one or two of your classmates will. And when another job in their firm opens up, they’ll suggest you. Knowing people is half the battle. Use university to get to know people.
- Cultural Capital. As I noted earlier, university teaches you how to act. You learn what to say and how to say it in order to get ahead. That way your professor speaks—with big industry jargon words that roll off their tongue so easily—will rub off on you. In teacher education, you’ll start using the word "pedagogy" without another thought. In cultural studies, you’ll drop the word "discourse" into a job interview without a second thought. You learn how to be a professional at university. In other words, you learn cultural capital. All of this street cred gives you what you’re really most likely after in the long run—Economic Capital—that well-paid job.
5. Your degree opens doors (even ones you haven’t thought of).
I studied to be a primary school (elementary school) teacher. I ended up as a ski instructor, teaching at universities, then managing online forums, then writing online courses for a living.
No one—no one—ever told me there was ever an option apart from primary school teaching for me. But, university degrees can take you places you didn’t expect.
So I’ll let you in on a little secret. One year into a four-year primary school teaching degree, I knew I was never, ever going to teach children. I realised it early on. I stayed at university for the parties, if I’m honest. But heck, let me tell you: That degree opened other doors for me big time.
Even if you don’t want to work in the industry your degree is designed for, you’ll still have opportunities. For many students, you can change your major pretty easily. Talk to a careers advisor and consider your options. If you can’t change—maybe you’re close to the end—don’t despair. Your degree is still very, very worthwhile.
I have friends who studied teaching with me who ended up being cruise ship operators, small business owners, police officers, and nurses. One friend went into educational game design, another tours Aboriginal communities giving motivational speeches.
There’s more to the degree than is on the box.
Before quitting university, keep these five things in mind. In particular, reflect on whether the short-term pain will be worth the long-term gain. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t…
One last time, here’s the top five reasons not to quit university when times get tough:
- You’ll make more money in the long run (statistically).
- You will learn more than what’s in the books.
- Learning is, by definition, hard, but it gets easier.
- Your degree gives you street cred.
- Your degree opens doors (even ones you haven’t thought of).