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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Education: Your Lifelong Insurance Policy

For people who have recently understood the truth to the parental nagging “study harder so you can get into university”, or people who from lower socio-economic backgrounds have strived hard to obtain it – your university degree can be alternatively interpreted as your lifelong insurance policy. What against? Insecurity of living circumstances, inability to travel the world, inability to raise a family, inability to buy a house; the list goes on illustrating the infinite negative consequences of not obtaining that slip of paper upon graduation. What does it represent? Utilisable knowledge? Or spending 3 to 5 years of your life at learning institution just because it was commonly known to provide substantial future financial benefit? While university education casts an often lifelong safety net increasing earnings potential as compared to non-university attendance, there are caveats in how you should spend your years in tertiary education to make it permanently worthwhile.

The purpose of education, in essence, is to pave the road ahead for your financial stability. This is well known. Finishing primary education, you are a product worthy of trade in the labour market, albeit worth lower, in terms of value, than a high school graduate. This is logical, considering secondary education builds upon the fundamental societal behaviours that primary school teaches you. Not that primary school graduates are always less learned than high school graduates. In India, 46 percent of adults don’t finish primary education, and in the modern day and age, there are a plethora of alternate pathways which gain you equivalent technical and personal enhancement, from military schools to vocational education. But in the labour market, the tool used by every individual, is signalling. That’s essentially what you’re doing when you’re embellishing your CV with your latest achievement. Employers are looking to ensure themselves as well, that their hire will contribute productively to their business’ purposes. And it is difficult to argue that the productive capacity of a high school graduate won’t be more significant than a primary school graduate.

University, however, is a more substantial investment. Tertiary education prices are rising around the world. Fees vary according to the discipline, of course. If you’re studying medicine, the degree requires higher costs of provision, think: quality of lecturers, availability of research laboratories, partnerships with hospitals and acquisition of equipment. The more prestigious the education, the more it will cost. Thus the price you will pay, over time, will be significantly higher than, for example, an arts and humanities course, which is less reliant on operating equipment, and with more resources available on electronic learning libraries. In Australia, a particularly controversial case has been the offering of a 250 000 AUD medical degree by Macquarie University, branded as a cash grab by the public, with a questionable background of pedigree.

So how do we justify the decision to attend or to not attend university, let alone which discipline we ought to study? This is, of course, not taking into consideration the degrees which will require much more foresight. If you wanted to study medicine, you would most likely have honed the working discipline required to obtain the appropriate academic marks from as early as your fourth year of secondary education. Pre-emptive planning, often long in advance, is necessary in a route of advancement. Even when you’re in university, many begin planning post-graduate pathways with preparation long before. Which compounds the decision even further, is it, temporally and financially, worth the investment to go to university?

Comparing a high school graduate who immediately entered the workforce to a university graduate who just culminated their study, the contrast is stark. 175000 AUD in profit compared to 50000 AUD in debt, for the university graduate. But the argument for tertiary education is strengthened, as with any investment, over time. The median weekly income for those holding at least an undergraduate degree, in Australia, is 1436 AUD (this is measured averaging earnings over one’s career, accounting for the fact that incomes start very low immediately after graduation). This is compared to a non-tertiary qualified who will earn 836 AUD. Thus the head-start in financial buffer enjoyed lasts only until twenty nine years of age, according to a graph published by The Sydney Morning Herald, after which the degree holder goes on to enjoy higher salaries until the common retirement age of 67.

But, it isn’t logical to scramble for tertiary education regardless of the degree you are studying. You need to do some research about whether your degree will actually be employable in the future. And with the ongoing development of artificial intelligence and automated technologies, it is more necessary than ever before to make a calculated decision whether the skills learned in your tertiary education will be what’s demanded in the labour market in the medium to long term future. In Australia, jobs from hospitality and tourism, transport and retail are targeted as being most at risk from automated technology within the next 10 to 15 years. This places nearly 5 million workers at risk of unemployment, posing huge consequences for governmental welfare management planning. For university degrees, this adds value to degrees specialising in science, technology and information systems. Companies will want to stay competitive, and it doesn’t make sense when your competing supermarket chain is saving labour costs by utilising self-service checkouts and you are still paying cashiers to manually scan every grocery item. Thus, you will need the research and development enabled by STEM graduates to develop efficient strategy and continue research and development.

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