University Education: Worth the Cost?

A recent poster on popular question-and-answer website Quora asked how one could get a student loan with a low or zero interest rate—in Nigeria. The question attracted a fair amount of expected incredulity and
a few clever quips. After all, everyone knows there’s no financial aid (i.e., student loans) in the Nigerian education system. But there are merit-based grants; the federal and state governments offer Nigerian students scholarships for study within and outside Nigeria, as do local and foreign companies, NGOs, and other governments. The Quora question does demonstrate how sought-after higher education is—the country’s 150 universities received 10 million applications between 2010 and 2015 and Nigerian immigrants have the highest levels of education in the United States, far ahead of whites and Asians—and how inadequate current assistance is for Africa’s most populous country. The question also highlights a disconcerting fact: without a financial aid system to help students along, higher education is a massive and often impossible investment for most.

But is it a worthwhile investment for students? Or a beneficial qualification to employers?

The Right Reasons…?
For students in the West, the benefits of a university degree are immediately apparent: degrees yield higher incomes for their holders over the course of a working life, as most economists will agree. US college graduates, for instance, earn on average 56% more than high school graduates and are more likely to find work, while a degree from a prestigious university increases a UK graduate’s lifetime earnings by as much as £177,000. In Nigeria, however, the average pay gap of 34% between entry-level university and secondary school graduates, while substantial, is much less pronounced than in the West, throwing reasonable doubt on the return on investment in a Nigerian university education. Despite this, more students are opting for, and graduating from, universities than ever before in Nigeria and across the world. And this huge growth in the graduate population has caused many employers to make university degrees a standard hiring requirement, making it the new qualifications baseline.

For employers, a degree is expected to provide a broad foundation of vocational knowledge and skills and for the development of non-technical skills that employees need to succeed, e.g., analytics and problem-solving, written and oral communication, team building and interpersonal relations, work ethic, etc. However, many employers don’t know even how to screen for or measure these “soft” skills. As a result, many employers erroneously use degrees as a proxy for skill when evaluating job candidates. And in raising minimum degree requirements for “middle-skill” positions (i.e., jobs that require secondary school certificates but not a university degree, e.g., secretarial work, bookkeeping, etc.), employers have shrunk their pool of skilled candidates, handicapping themselves.

Universities continue to attract record numbers of students (and fees), regardless of employment outcomes, but despite the growing number, diversity, and resources of these institutions, they remain curriculum-focused and are ill-equipped to teach their students soft skills, which are important indicators of on-the-job success and advancement. They are therefore unable to produce fully-rounded graduates armed with the tools necessary to enter and advance within the workforce.

This multilayered dilemma is causing more and more students and employers to question the inherent value of the university degree.

Changing Course

In order to keep pace with a changing and more competitive landscape and extract maximum value from their investments, students, universities, and employers must reorient and redeploy their efforts.

By offering expanded tools and services that focus on and actively encourage career-readiness, higher-learning institutions can redefine their value proposition. They may augment their technical education curricula in three complementary ways: by offering preliminary courses on soft skills development, measuring career outcomes, and partnering with skills development organisations to provide holistic career-readiness training. Assuring students of more bang for their buck using fact-based evidence will draw more students to such forward-thinking universities, bolster the reputations of these institutions, and produce more career-ready workers.

For their part, employers could follow on with a two-pronged approach to the issue: they could coordinate with career-readiness-focused universities, offering internships and apprenticeships to talented students, and also partner with skills developers who can both screen for soft skills in potential student candidates and provide soft skills and occupational competencies training to selected students.

Prospective and current students are the linchpin, however. They could first begin guaranteeing future career success by aiming to attend universities that properly equip students for entry into the workforce. They would then be trained by their universities’ skills development partners who will make them employable and place them at partner employers.

To accomplish deep, sustainable change, all three groups require the expertise of an experienced skills development partner.

What We Do

WAVE - West Africa Vocational Education (WAVE) Academy specialises in 4 key areas:

Screening: By using structured behavioural interviews and training sessions that we continuously validate to ensure they remain relevant and predictive, we’re able to identify self-motivated students and youths who are willing to learn and determined to succeed.

Training: We develop the skills they do have and help them acquire those they don’t. Our model is centred on developing people at a systemic level; we engage our new work candidates in a 4-week entry-level training programme that, through lessons and role-playing, teaches the industry-relevant soft skills that employers seek. In 2016 alone, we trained 697 youths to become work-ready.

Placement: We match job-ready students and youths with our growing network of employer partners. We mainstream these youth into the workforce via accelerated employment pathways and help them leverage their innate strengths within the employer’s work environment. We placed approximately 70% of all trainees, with 53% of our 2016 trainees being immediately placed with 177 employer partners across sectors that include hospitality, retail, health, financial services, media, logistics, and education.

Support: We provide post-training support through monthly workshops and mentorship.

Employer Partners

Employers that have benefited from our approach include Radisson Blu, Spar International, Ruff ‘n’ Tumble, Café Neo, The Wheatbaker Hotel, Prince Ebeano Supermarkets, Printivo, The Ice Cream Factory, Filmhouse IMAX, Africa Courier Express, Kilimanjaro, Nuts About Cakes, Shawarma & Co., BarBar Cuts & Cocktails, Zenbah, Sweet Kiwi, Nuli Juice Lounge, RSVP, Salt, and Hans & Rene.

WAVE Academy itself has benefited from its own model, with 30% of its staff being Academy graduates.

The Takeaway

Targeted, layered, and interconnected changes to how higher-learning institutions, employers, and students approach higher education can have far-reaching and rewarding effects. While financial aid may yet be out of reach for Nigerian students, job preparedness doesn’t have to be. Students, universities, and employers could all benefit from an approach to skills training and job placement that will ensure that they all extract the most value from that sought-after university degree.

Unless otherwise indicated, figures are based on the findings of WAVE Academy publication Analysing the Nigerian Recruiters' Degree Bias: 2018 Hiring Process in Nigeria.

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