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Should I apply to university?

If you're already sure you are going to apply to university, check out our applying to university section for information and advice on the process, including how to write a good personal statement, and tips for any interviews you may have.

However, if you’re still uncertain whether university is the right path for you, read on to find out more on the pros and cons of entering higher education.

What are the benefits of higher education?

Undertaking a course in higher education can benefit you in a number of ways.

Not only can university offer an environment rich in social and cultural experiences, but can also help further your career prospects by gaining valuable new skills sought by employers, which will open more doors to better jobs.

Getting a university qualification means you are less likely to be unemployed than non-graduates, so will always be extremely advantageous during your job search.

There are now around 50,000 courses available at universities and colleges across the UK, so there's bound to be something that appeals to you.

There are different flexible options for studying a higher education course: full-time, part-time and online distance learning, so you can fit it in around any commitments you may have.

Better salaries

Although the monetary rewards vary greatly depending on which subject you study, it has been shown that on average, graduates will earn significantly more in their lifetime than those with A levels and no degree qualification.

The difference currently stands at around £100,000 before tax, and can rise to nearly £350,000 for medical graduates.

Career prospects

Having a degree will improve your chances of gaining promotion, and help you progress up the career ladder more quickly and into your dream job. In addition to the academic side of your university education, there will be social benefits too. 

There is much more to higher education than just poring over textbooks and taking exams – all universities have a wide range of clubs and societies that you can become part of, e.g. kayaking, rugby, chess, drama, photography, etc.

This can provide you with valuable experience that will look great on your CV when you graduate. Employers will see you as a more rounded person, having mixed with a variety of people from all walks of life, and developed important life skills such as communication and problem solving.

Your experiences will also give you more confidence, which will be obvious to employers.

Independence

Attending university and living away from home gives you the chance to be completely independent. You will develop important skills that include cooking, cleaning and managing your finances.

Of course, if you pick the right subject, there will also be all the enjoyment in studying your course and expanding your knowledge on something that interests you.

Many graduates say they do not regret going to university or college, and describe it as one of the best experiences of their life.

Any reasons why I shouldn't go to university?

Not really – but here are a couple that lead students into choosing not to go into higher education.

Finance

There are still too few students from poorer backgrounds going to university, and there is evidence to suggest the cost is putting young people and mature students off.

Financial worries for prospective students have intensified since tuition fees raised to a maximum of £9,000, forcing graduates to leave university with debts of over £40,000.

However, despite this bleak outlook, try not to worry too much about the money side of attending a higher education institution – there is lots of financial aid out there once you start looking.

Certainly do not let costs dissuade you if you are intent on following a career that demands a degree, such as medicine, engineering, or law.

Living costs

You can get help with living costs by applying for a student loan, and you won’t have to start paying any of it back until you are earning £21,000 or more when you graduate.

Once you reach this threshold, you will have to pay back 9% of whatever income you are earning over £21,000. There is also no commercial rate of interest on this loan, and the amount you repay is only linked to the rate of inflation.

The loan available to you varies: for those students living at home outside London it is a maximum of £4,565 and up to £8,009 for those living away from home in London. Everyone qualifies for 65% of the maximum loan, regardless of income, and the rest is means tested.   From 1 August 2016, the maintenance loan amount will be increasing so that students studying outside of London may receive up to £8,200 per year.

It is also worth checking still to see if you are eligible for a Maintenance Grant, to help with accommodation and other living expenses. If you are a single parent or a student with particular disabilities, you may qualify for a Special Support Grant instead of a Maintenance Grant.  For courses starting after August 2016, there will no longer be a Maintenance Grant available.  You may still qualify for extra financial help if you are disabled or have dependents.

The maximum you can get for either grant for the 2015/16 academic year is £3,387, and none of the money for these grants has to be repaid.

However, the actual amount you get will depend on factors such as your household income and when you started your course.

Check here for details on Maintenance Grant and Special Support Grant rates to see how much you could receive.

There are also other grants and loans you can apply for to give you extra help, such as The Childcare Grant, Access to Learning Fund and Disabled Students' Allowance.

These are generally not affected by your household income and none of it has to be repaid.

Some universities offer special bursaries and scholarships to those from lower income backgrounds to help cover the cost of textbooks and equipment.  You will need to contact universities directly to find out about them. 

Some bursaries require you to achieve good A-level grades, or are means tested, so check carefully before applying.  More information can be found via the National Scholarship Programme.

If you are studying nursing or teaching, you may be eligible for a professional bursary such as the NHS Student Bursary (this includes courses such as chiropody, dental surgery and midwifery) or an initial teacher training grant.

Tuition Fees

Universities and colleges can charge up to £9,000 per year for full-time students and £6,750 for part-time students.  Private colleges and universities may charge more than this. 

Eligible students can apply for a tuition fee loan of up to £9,000 to cover the cost of any tuition fees. For full details on the eligibility criteria for a tuition fee loan, go to dcsf.gov.uk.  The tuition fee loan is not means tested, and you do not have to start paying it back until you are earning over £21,000. The tuition fee loan is paid directly to your university or college.

If you choose not to apply for a tuition fee loan to cover your fees, you will be required by your university to make the payment in accordance with their deadline.

For more information on applying for student finance, please visit gov.uk. To download all the forms and guides on student finance applications for 2015/16, please see the student finance forms section at gov.uk.

Access

Just because you are not 18 with 3 A levels under your belt, doesn't mean you should turn away from the path into higher education.

University lecturers welcome mature students, as they know they will be more focused on and committed to their studies.

If you're concerned about being able to keep up with all the work, or lack of computer skills for example, universities and colleges accommodate for this by offering extra assistance to students of all ages to help overcome any initial learning problems.

This can take form in one-to-one sessions with tutors, group tutorials and study skills workshops. It is worth contacting all the universities you are thinking of applying to and check how much support will be available to you.

Don't be put off by the large number of 18-22 year olds you will encounter – we can guarantee that you will not be the only mature student in your university! You are more than likely to meet and make friends with like-minded people, and hopefully have an exciting and refreshing experience.

As an older student you may also have to adjust to having less money, especially if you had a well paid job before.

Alternatively, you may have to consider working part-time during your degree in order to support your family.

As this could become a problem later on when you start your course, it's best to try and work out a schedule beforehand.

This involves getting a support system in place, to make sure childcare arrangements are organised and work schedules arranged so you have enough time for studying and attending lectures.

It is likely that full-time work will not be possible, so it is essential that you plan your finances accordingly. You can do this either by saving, taking out a loan and checking to see if any financial aid is available in the form of grants or bursaries.

An alternative that is becoming increasingly popular for older students is distance learning. With student debt on the rise, many younger students are also choosing this option.

It can be a great way of balancing existing responsibilities with gaining new qualifications. Most degrees nowadays are modular, allowing students to adjust their pace of study if necessary.

All in all, a university degree is good value for money. Extra learning does lead to extra earnings, and there's already lots of help available while you study. Just remember to do your research, and if you decide to apply to university, you're likely to be embarking on one of the best experiences of your life!