No degree grade guarantees you a good – or bad – salary

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If your formative years of education were anything like mine, the idea of a meritocracy was revealed from the off – a straightforward system of gold stars for high achievers and lashings of pugnacious red pen for those who weren’t realising their potential.

So it should have been little surprise to anyone when the London School of Economics reported last week that those with upper-second degreesearned £2,000 more per year after graduation.

The shock! Work hard and it’ll pay off? There must be pubs heaving with undergraduates turning to each other, aghast: “To think, all this time, I’ve been going for a solid 2:2. If only someone had said…”

Plainly, students should strive to accomplish as high grades as they can.

But more importantly, the conclusions reached in coverage of the report do little to helpfully assess the influence of a degree.

The LSE’s findings, as widely reported, approximate the difference in wages between a graduate with a 2:2 and one with a 2:1 as £81,000 over a career. But this is a baseless extrapolation, and should be largely dismissed as scaremongering; long-term earning potential cannot be guessed according to degree classification, and it’s a mistake to think of a degree as having a career-long influence on earnings.

It’s simply not how things work: the degree gets you over the first hurdle and from then on, the size of your pay packet relies on experience, your contact book and office politics. Behaviour at the Christmas party may or may not be considered.

If anything, then, the most useful thing to take from the LSE report is that doing better in exams appears to ease the transition from university to employment – though I have little doubt the scores of unemployed, or underemployed, graduates with 2:1s may disagree.

The ‘£2000 more’ headlines are certainly distracting, but for the majority, they shouldn’t be. In the report – which looked solely at high-flying LSE alumni – graduate earnings work out at £28,571 for a 2:2 and £30,571 for a 2:1. But the national average graduate salary is around £20,000. The differences for the majority are likely to be significantly smaller.

Moreover, appraising a degree by the amount of money it later pulls in assumes graduates will always pursue the highest pay packet, which is an obvious untruth. Aside from those who wish to pursue an interest, a higher pay packet doesn’t always equate to the being the most gratifying route – especially if earning more means moving to a more expensive place, or away from those you’d like to be with.

Wages earned aren’t solely set according to the degree the employee has; it makes little sense to solely value the degree by the wage its bearer earns.

It seem self-evident to me that the reason to aim for high grades is the promise of reward. Those who’ve worked hard for the top grades may find it an easier transition to their ideal role.

But just as a degree can’t charm an employer in interview or write the cover letter that lands it in the first place, it will not guarantee the boss looks away when someone is scrawling idly through Buzzfeed. Don’t let this report mislead; whatever your degree, the pressure remains on, and if you have a bad grade, it needn’t be the absolute end of the world. WH Auden scraped by with a third.

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