Not Ju$t You: Does A Degree Guarantee Financial Stability?

Sean Yee

Sean Yee

Last updated 21 January, 2022

Not Ju$t You, a SingSaver series, sheds light on millennial money matters we are hesitant to talk about, but really should.


Is a degree the golden ticket, or a lie?

Many Singaporeans love to encapsulate the rising cost of living in our sunny island with a bowl of noodles. You’ve probably heard it before – “I could get a bowl of noodles in the past for a few cents. Now, it's at least S$4!”

With record-high inflation and an upcoming GST hike, many are fearful that they can never catch up with the escalating cost of living. The pursuit of financial stability has become a carrot on a stick, though it has evolved to a point where we start to wonder if we'll ever get the carrot.

As such, the notion that a degree functions as a golden ticket to this seemingly impossible pursuit is more and more alluring, with many gravitating towards tertiary education under this impression. While this may be true a long time ago (and even this in itself is debatable), how does this claim fare in the current climate?

The University Dream

It is increasingly common for the youth to chase the university dream. Consequently, tertiary institutions become saturated with students expecting exclusive opportunities and prospects after receiving “the golden ticket”. Ambitious and optimistic undergraduates indoctrinated under this notion may be in for a very rude awakening, for this path can be deceivingly straightforward. Akin to a trial by fire, there is a multitude of challenges that might overwhelm undergraduates who may be  inadequately informed or prepared.

Interest or Trending Majors

You’ve probably heard words like ‘passion’ and ‘interests’ tossed around, especially when navigating this complex decision. Sure, “Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life”, but it is also crucial to understand that not all majors are equally employable and practical.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines are heavily favoured because of the promise of attractive employment opportunities and lucrativeness. Many opt to pursue these disciplines motivated by this promise, only to burn out when they realise that their inclinations lie elsewhere. 

Also, many are remiss to consider that the widespread popularity of these majors leads to an excessively populated field. Demand dictates supply and vice versa. Ergo, the employment certainties that were once synonymous with STEM disciplines are now no longer guaranteed, as competition has become increasingly stiff.

Hierarchy within the hierarchy

Say you, like many others, have decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Congratulations. Now, which university have you decided to matriculate at?

The choice may not be as simple as you think, thanks to the advent of universal ranking scales that shape the educational landscape. Does your university rank well in popular lists such as the QS World University Ranking and Times Higher Education (THE)? Many of us may criticise this consideration as pretentious and elitist, declaring that rankings do not matter.

But, in some ways, they do. At least, the ranking of your school is an important criterion for some employers. It has been corroborated through graduate employment surveys that your university’s prestige (or lack thereof) may either inflate your prospects, or cripple them. With a rising number of graduates entering the workforce, employers no longer just filter candidates based on their educational qualifications, but the institute they graduated from. This has led to the debate of ‘public vs private’ and bestowed disproportionate merit and privilege on graduates from the ‘Big Three’ universities in Singapore - further perpetuating this hierarchy and bias.  

Is it enough?

Many assume that a degree can open a trove of employment offers. That may have been true a long time ago, but the trove’s lock has seen many changes through the years, and it will require more than a degree to unlock those benefits.

Valuable skills and competencies that are highly sought after may not be taught or covered extensively at your faculty or discipline. Soft skills are also often left uncultivated given that tertiary studies entail an emphasis on academia. While some curriculums have attempted to include opportunities to pick up these skills, they are merely the tip of the iceberg and are often inadequate.

Opportunity Cost

A bachelor’s degree in Singapore typically requires an investment of two to four years of undergraduate studies. For full-time courses, the coursework can be overwhelmingly time-consuming, and students may not have the luxury of exploring professional options outside of academia.

As such, there is a subtle opportunity cost that many do not consider. These two to four years could have been better spent on meaningful professional growth and exploration, providing opportunities for one to expand his or her portfolio while earning an income instead of dozing off at a lecture hall.

It isn’t cheap

These points notwithstanding, university fees are exorbitant. Even with subsidies, a typical four-year degree can set you back by a base sum of S$32,000. This is not inclusive of hostel and accommodation fees, textbooks and compulsory overseas exchange programmes. Some students are forced to take up a bank or study loan to finance their studies, and will have to pay interest rates that can be accumulative. This is also under the assumption that the student chooses to study at a local institute, for overseas studies can potentially be two to three times more expensive. 

In retrospect, it is rather ironic that in order to have a chance at financial security, you will have to compromise it first. University studies can be an incredibly costly venture that may not be as rewarding as one would hope.

A golden ticket, or a crutch?

Given the current climate, it is understandable that many are more risk-averse. A university degree is seemingly the ‘safer’ option in the pursuit of financial stability. However, past promises that are associated with degrees are no longer relevant in our current landscape, and the attainment of a degree is a financial risk of its own.

There are other pathways one can explore in the attainment of financial stability, which includes proper money management, extensive career planning and financial literacy. Do not limit yourself to the conventional route that was determined by outdated notions. With that said, a degree can still be an invaluable tool in your pursuit of career and financial success, albeit being supplementary in nature. It is just no longer the golden ticket many assume it to be.

Read these next:
The Real Cost: How Much Does Higher Education Really Cost In Singapore
Millennials Have Spoken: These Are The Worst Money Worries This Year in 2020
The Top 5 Financial Trends For Singapore in 2022
The Fundamentals Of Financial Readiness Is It Worth Furthering Your Education?

Sean loves all things that is food (except bitter gourd — the bane of all cuisines). However, he loves his wallet too. As such, he has set himself on a quest to find deliciously cheap food while exploring opportunities to grow his wallet; just so that he can get more food. A vicious cycle really.