Is a university degree still worth it?

Amid mounting tuition fees and a global pandemic, parents and students may be reconsidering the value of a higher education. With Covid-19 closing campuses and moving lectures online, the high cost of a university degree may seem hard to justify in the current economic climate.

However, as the job market becomes increasingly competitive, a degree from a top university can help young South Africans stand out from the crowd, setting them on the path to graduate level jobs and higher incomes.

“The value of a university education goes beyond the degree itself. Additional benefits include peers who bring their own rich experiences and perspectives to campus; high-calibre staff; and a global network of alumni connections and employment opportunities,” said Rebecca Pretorius, country manager at global mentorship company Crimson Education.

Despite an uncertain application year, during which students faced a number of Covid-19 related challenges, global admission trends show an increase in applicants competing for places at top universities abroad.

Harvard University reported a record number of applications for the class of 2025, receiving 57,000 applications, up from approximately 40,000 in the previous year. This trend was seen across all the Ivy League and other top US universities.

In the UK, 76,940 students applied to Oxford and Cambridge, as well as medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine and science courses – an increase of 23,670 applications from the previous year.

“The increase in global admissions highlights the already high value of a world-class education. At the same time, it also demonstrates the necessity for students to differentiate themselves, especially in the current and post-pandemic economy,” said Pretorius.

With Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown causing businesses around the world to downscale, those entering the job market for the first time will be competing for fewer jobs overall.

“In many cases, a bachelor’s degree is now considered to be a basic requirement across the board, especially in the fields of science and business. South Africans wanting to start a career abroad will need to consider how they can appeal to employers, many of whom historically hire graduates of top universities,” said Pretorius.

For those wanting to pursue specialist degrees and professions, such as medicine, applicants will face even more competition when it comes to securing admission to a top university.

2020 has seen medical school applications in the US rise by 18% since last year — the greatest leap in over a decade — with some schools such as Stanford University’s School of Medicine seeing jumps as high as 50%. With Covid-19 demonstrating the importance of medicine, more and more young people are working towards making a difference.

“South African students will find a lot of value in earning a university degree, whether from a top local or international university. Moving to study abroad offers the added opportunity to travel, to learn about new people and cultures first-hand, and set up professional networks that will help you get hired after graduation. Although the future is uncertain, it’s worth investing in now more than ever,” said Pretorius.


Read: New proposals to get more South Africans into university

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Is a university degree still worth it?