University Education: Worth the Cost?

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

A recent poster on popularquestion-and-answer website Quora asked how one could get a student loan with alow or zero interest rate—in Nigeria. The question attracted a fair amount ofexpected incredulity and
a few clever quips. After all, everyone knows there’sno financial aid (i.e., student loans) in the Nigerian education system. Butthere are merit-based grants; the federal and state governments offer Nigerianstudents scholarships for study within and outside Nigeria, as do local andforeign companies, NGOs, and other governments. The Quora question doesdemonstrate how sought-after higher education is—the country’s 150 universitiesreceived 10 million applications between 2010 and 2015 and Nigerian immigrantshave the highest levels of education in the United States, far ahead of whitesand Asians—and how inadequate current assistance is for Africa’s most populouscountry. The question also highlights a disconcerting fact: without a financialaid system to help students along, higher education is a massive and oftenimpossible investment for most.

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

The RightReasons…?

For students in the West,the benefits of a university degree are immediately apparent: degrees yieldhigher incomes for their holders over the course of a working life, as mosteconomists will agree. US college graduates, for instance, earn on average 56%more than high school graduates and are more likely to find work, while adegree from a prestigious university increases a UK graduate’s lifetimeearnings by as much as £177,000. In Nigeria, however, the average pay gap of34% between entry-level university and secondary school graduates, whilesubstantial, is much less pronounced than in the West, throwing reasonabledoubt on the return on investment in a Nigerian university education. Despitethis, more students are opting for, and graduating from, universities than everbefore in Nigeria and across the world. And this huge growth in the graduatepopulation has caused many employers to make university degrees a standardhiring requirement, making it the new qualifications baseline.

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

Universities continue toattract record numbers of students (and fees), regardless of employmentoutcomes, but despite the growing number, diversity, and resources of theseinstitutions, they remain curriculum-focused and are ill-equipped to teachtheir students soft skills, which are important indicators of on-the-jobsuccess and advancement. They are therefore unable to produce fully-roundedgraduates armed with the tools necessary to enter and advance within theworkforce.

This multilayered dilemmais causing more and more students and employers to question the inherent valueof the university degree.


In order to keep pace witha changing and more competitive landscape and extract maximum value from theirinvestments, students, universities, and employers must reorient and redeploytheir efforts.

By offering expanded toolsand services that focus on and actively encourage career-readiness,higher-learning institutions can redefine their value proposition. They may augmenttheir technical education curricula in three complementary ways: by offeringpreliminary courses on soft skills development, measuring career outcomes, andpartnering with skills development organisations to provide holisticcareer-readiness training. Assuring students of more bang for their buck usingfact-based evidence will draw more students to such forward-thinkinguniversities, bolster the reputations of these institutions, and produce morecareer-ready workers.

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

Prospective and currentstudents are the linchpin, however. They could first begin guaranteeing futurecareer success by aiming to attend universities that properly equip studentsfor entry into the workforce. They would then be trained by their universities’skills development partners who will make them employable and place them atpartner employers.

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

What WeDo

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

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

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

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

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


Employers that havebenefited 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 hasbenefited from its own model, with 30% of its staff being Academy graduates.


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


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

Leadership is not just about giving energy ... it's unleashing other people's energy.” – Paul Polman

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Hon.Tunde Adeolu Adebayo
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