Crunching the numbers on the worth of university

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Almost every undergraduate, at one point, asks the following question: is university worth it? I myself have spent more than a few hours over the last several years pondering this. But what does it mean for something to be worth it? Monetary return? Experiential value? Or is it merely another check we all feel must be crossed off before entering adulthood?

The answer to this question is all of the above. We’d all like a higher salary and to experience all of the joys of university life. Most commonly, we want to cross this task off our list, and move on. The question then is, does university actually get you any of these things?

From a monetary perspective, let’s assume you graduate at the age of 25 and you work for at least another 40 years. Having gone through post-secondary education, how much more money would you need to make in order to break even?

Simply combine the cost of your tuition, the opportunity cost you incur by attending school, and the interest on your student loan repayment. By my estimate, if you’re an undergraduate, your total cost will never be over $75,000. Now you may find this number rather staggering. You may question what job you could possibly get upon graduation that could justify such an expenditure. The answer, surprisingly, is just about any.      

University only needs to make you better off than you would have been otherwise.

Assuming you have the next 40 years of work to break even, and assuming that you will work full-time each year, you would need to make an average of 97 cents more per hour — than what you would have made without your degree — post-university for your degree to have been worth it. Some might argue that you won’t even be able to make that much more, being perpetually underqualified due to your lack of work experience.

My answer would be to wait. Take that BA designation off of your resume, get a ‘basic job,’ then apply for a proper one every week. Even if it takes you years to build up the work experience needed, it will still have been worth it. Remember, post-secondary education doesn’t need to make you a millionaire to have been worth it. It simply needs to make you better off than you would have been otherwise.

These ideas do not even consider the fact that university is amazing on its own merits, regardless of any payback. It is a time for you to be part of a community of thinkers, to become politically active, and socially mobile. To use a tired cliché, it is a place for you to discover yourself and find your academic muse. This muse, whether English or statistics, geology or acting, will inform and enrich the rest of your life. What is more, the experiences you share with your peers, professors, lovers, and friends will stay with you forever.

When you take all of these benefits into consideration, in conjunction with the fact that the monetary payoff is almost certain, surely your answer to my question is obvious: university is worth it.