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SmallChange

Is university still a good investment?

Yes, if only for the rigour of learning new skills and making friends for a lifetime

A top-notch education is frequently viewed as the passport to a well-paid job. Yet putting your child through college these days is no walk in the park.

Former US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke once said an ex-colleague had likened the experience of putting his three children through Princeton University to buying a new Cadillac car every year and then driving it over a cliff. Still, painful though it may be financially, his ex-colleague said he would have no hesitation in doing it all over again if he had to, Mr Bernanke added.

I had similar feelings when my nephew asked me for a $60,000 loan to do his MBA at Singapore Management University. He had graduated with a social science degree and felt he needed some financial grounding to get ahead in life.

Since he was already working, his first option should have been to apply to a bank for a loan. But the catch is that even if the loan application had been successful, he would have been saddled with a big debt to repay.

He also hasn't fully paid off the loan he had taken out to fund his undergraduate studies.


The writer went to Cambridge University and, beyond earning his degree and enjoying the vibrant college life, libraries and beautiful parks, made lifelong friends. ST PHOTO: GOH ENG YEOW

These considerations led me to lend him the money. But, haunted by the spectre of the wrecked Cadillacs conjured up by Mr Bernanke's ex-colleague, I wonder if I will ever see my money again.

Why did I do it? Giving him a head-start over his peers is a powerful motivation. My generation and previous ones believe that having an excellent education is one of the best tickets to a good job. This is because education qualifications are often used by employers as a gauge to find out if a potential hire has the attributes they are looking for.

But would that be enough, I find myself wondering, as robots start to do many of the well-paying jobs in sectors such as banking and accountancy which have long required degree holders to perform.

At a Straits Times-Ministry of Education Current Affairs Quiz held at Dunman High School recently, students reflected the same concern as we discussed the disruptions caused by technologies to the financial sector.

As one student quite succinctly pointed out, billionaires such as Microsoft's Bill Gates and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg didn't need degrees to make it to the big league. Both of them were college dropouts.

So, is going to college still worthwhile? I would still give an unequivocal "yes", even though I agree that not all university degrees will fatten the wallet.

In my view, Mr Gates and Mr Zuckerberg are big exceptions to the rule. For most of us who have been to university, not only does a degree provide an important stepping stone to a good career, but also it lays the framework for a life-long learning process.

True, many of us took courses at university which did not quite equip us with the skills for the jobs we were subsequently hired to do. But the rigorous training received enabled us to do well in our chosen careers.

In my case, I studied physics in university. But I have spent most of my working life as a financial writer dealing with subjects which have nothing in common with physics.

I went to an exalted university, Cambridge, where the vibrant college life, libraries and beautiful parks by the River Cam are to die for. But even in less beautiful settings, universities have proved to be wonderful meeting places where we get fantastic opportunities to do a lot of different things - exchange ideas, take part in sport or undertake a research project in a subject which we enjoy.

It was at university that I was taught simple ways to solve even the most complicated physics problems. It is a philosophy I find useful in helping me make sense of the bewildering complexities of the financial landscape I write about.

Moreover, a university degree should not be viewed as an end in itself. I told the students at the current affairs quiz about my 108-year-old aunt - and the likelihood that many of them will live as long as her because of the rapid advances in medical technologies.

Given that, working till the current retirement age of 62 may not be viable any more because this would mean the number of years we spend in retirement would far exceed the time we spend working - and we may find ourselves running out of money in our advanced years.

But working 50 to 60 years at the same job is a daunting prospect even if we can find an employer willing to keep us for that long. Whatever skills and knowledge we pick up at university would be obsolete long before we finally stop working.

Life can no longer be split up into merely three stages - education, career and retirement. Working long past 62 will be the norm, rather than the exception. In that case, we may end up with six or seven phases in our lives, working in a certain job for some years, then returning to education to learn new skills before picking up another job, and taking time off to pursue other activities such as starting a family.

Given such scenarios, a person may find himself doing more than one university degree in his lifetime - a basic one which offers him thinking skills, as well as many subsequent post-graduate courses to give him the skills necessary to perform his job.

The trick is to keep finding work which robots cannot do.

That brings me to my final point about the true value of a college education, which cannot be measured in dollars and cents: making lifelong friends.

When you have lived as long as my 108-year-old aunt, you will find that you need a posse of good friends to sustain you through your long life. Otherwise, the loneliness can be untenable.

Now that I have turned 55, reaching what many consider to be the mid-point in life, I find that the most enduring friendships are those I forged in university. That has increasingly struck me as I found myself getting re-connected with long-lost friends. The intervening years simply fell away as we picked up friendships from where we had left off. It is as though we had never lost touch at all. When we get together, we still enjoy the camaraderie of our youth even though we lead very different lives.

Getting a degree isn't just about getting a well-paid job. I wouldn't give up those wonderful years I spent at university for the world.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 23, 2017, with the headline ' Is university still a good investment?'. Print Edition | Subscribe