The Utility of University in 2020 and Beyond

Right now I'm 16, which means I'm in Grade 11, which means I'm about a year and a half away from entering the real world. There's a ton of opportunity cost associated with going to university–namely the monetary investment and the time it actually takes. As a result, I've recently thought a lot about the potential benefits and downsides of going to university and thought I'd share them in this post. 

When I was about 11 or 12, I decided that I wasn't going to go to university and that instead, I was going to start my own company and become a millionaire. My parents weren't too pleased, and my peers thought I was a little crazy, but little-me was determined to forge his own path. I stood by this decision for several years and even started learning how to code so that I could prepare myself to start this multi-million-dollar company.

Until just a few months ago, I was still pretty confident in my decision; I was either going to start a company out of high school, or I was going to get a job as a developer, then start a company. 

But last summer (2019), I became less and less sure of this decision, until I finally did a complete 180 and decided to put more effort into school so I could get into the university of my choice. 

Before I dive into why, I think it's important to understand what the benefits of university used to be. 

What were the benefits of university? 

The benefits of going to university just 20 years ago were pretty clear: 

  • Not as many people (compared to today) graduated from university, so going would give you a competitive advantage over others. 
  • You learned stuff. Back then, the internet was nothing compared to what it is today: there was no YouTube and no online courses. Going to university was one of the best ways to get access to unique knowledge. 
  • Meeting likeminded people and networking. Even 20 years ago it wasn't as easy to meet people as it is today. University offered a unique environment where you could meet smart and interesting people. 
  • Access to various resources: labs, books, professors, etc. 
  • The social experience. There's no other kind of institution in the world that puts a bunch of kids together with no parents around to supervise. This helps build independence and also helps one learn more about themselves. 
  • Having a degree is a good way to signal to potential employers that you're probably qualified. 

There were probably a number of other benefits, but these are the ones I consider the most important. 

These were the benefits 20 years ago, and the further you go back in time, the more advantageous it was to go to university (to an extent). The problem is that times have changed, and when people who are 40+ years old, like my parents, tell me about the benefits of university, there's a good chance they're thinking of the benefits they experienced, rather than the benefits I'd experience. 

Even people who attended university rather recently can't give a much better answer. What if university becomes obsolete just a few years after I graduate? It most likely won't become obsolete immediately after I was to graduate, but there's no way to know for sure. 

After consulting various people in my life (including parents, mentors, peers, and otherwise), I identified what I think to be a good list of benefits of going to university today. Now let me be clear: I'm thinking about these benefits from my perspective; someone who wants to become a software engineer of sorts. For careers in medicine and law, for example, I think going to university is a necessity. I wouldn't want my surgeon to only have a Udacity Nanodegree under their belt after all. 

What are the benefits of university today? 

Unsurprisingly, the benefits of attending university today are pretty similar to 20 years ago, with the only difference being that now, for each benefit there are other options that don't require university

Back then, university gave you a competitive advantage over others. Today, most teenagers plan on getting a bachelors degree. 

Back then, university was a knowledge hub. Today, you can learn almost anything online and become competent at it. 

Back then, university gave you a chance to meet interesting people. Today, the internet makes it easy to meet all sorts of people from all over the world. 

You get the point. 

As a result of each of the benefits being lessened, I don't think going to university in itself is actually a good thing anymore. I think that, at least for me, it would actually be a waste of time to attend a mediocre university. In order for me to make the most of my time, I need to attend an 'elite' university. The more 'elite' a university is, the greater each of the benefits become. For example, a degree for MIT obviously makes you stand out much more than a degree from an obscure university. The calibre of the people, resources, et cetera, is also significantly higher. 

Personally, the main benefits I'm hoping to enjoy by attending a good university are having interesting experiences, growing as a person, and meeting smart people. The university should also serve as a base from which I can launch myself into environments I want to be in. For example, the University of Waterloo's co-op program gives students opportunities to work at interesting companies, some of which are in Silicon Valley! 

Luckily, I realized all of this before it was too late. Canadian universities only look at grades from your final year of high school (and occasionally the penultimate year), which means I can still make it into these top universities. 

In the long term, the university you attend doesn't matter nearly as much as your intelligence and how hard you work, but a good university is a great stepping stone for bringing you closer to achieving your goals. If you have any input I'd love to hear it as I'm always gathering more information on this topic. Shoot me an email at