There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to deciding between college, university and apprenticeships. In this guide, we share the differences, pros and cons of each option to help you make a decision about the best route for you.
Option 1: University
At university, you can study for an undergraduate degree, which typically lasts between 3 and 4 years. In the end, you graduate with a bachelor's degree in your chosen subject.
Advantages of going to university
- Study a subject you love. If you have one subject that you absolutely love and want to delve into deeper, a bachelor’s degree in that subject is an ideal choice - you’ll get to explore it thoroughly with the help of lectures, seminars, tutorials and plenty of hours in the library!
- Keep your options open. Universities can be a great option for those who aren’t 100% sure about the career they want to pursue yet. English degrees, for example, can lead on to a range of careers, like teaching, media, journalism and copywriting. Employers from a range of industries are more interested in the soft skills you develop during your degree than the actual subject you study, and there are plenty of sectors (including the Civil Service, marketing and even accountancy) that’ll take on graduates with a degree in any subject! This isn’t the case for everything though: if you want to be a doctor for example, you’ll have to study Medicine.
- Experience the culture. You can continue to live at home if your chosen university is nearby and you want to save on accommodation fees, but many students move to a different city or even a different country, enjoying the student lifestyle that comes with it.
Things to consider:
- It can be expensive. Tuition fees and living costs can be high. However, home students in the UK are eligible for student finance, which provides loans for incoming students to pay these costs. You will not be required to pay back your student loan until you are earning over £21,000 a year and it will come straight out of your salary, so you won’t even have to think about it. There are also lots of scholarships available, so be sure to check out the options at the universities that interest you.
- It requires academic study. If you’re excited to get a job and start your professional life, and you aren’t keen on the prospect of spending hours every week doing academic study, university might not be the right fit for you.
Option 2: Apprenticeships
Apprenticeships are becoming increasingly popular in the UK, and with good reason - they allow you to gain a national qualification at the same time as you work for an employer and get workplace experience, with no tuition fees. Anybody who is over the age of 16 can apply (there is no upper age limit), as long as they’re not in full-time education. Each apprenticeship has its own entry requirements. For example, to apply for an Advanced (Level 3) apprenticeship in England, you will usually need 5 GCSE passes or to have completed a Level 2 apprenticeship.
Advantages of apprenticeships
- You will earn a salary. In the UK, apprentices under the age of 19 earn a minimum of £4.15 per hour for the first year. If you are over 19, you earn the national minimum wage for your age after the first year. Some employers pay more, however!
- Gain technical, job-relevant skills. On top of the workplace experience you get from working for your employer, you’ll make a network of contacts, and the qualification you study for will teach you technical skills that are relevant for your job. Some apprenticeships, in Accounting for example, even lead to a degree - you can learn more about these here.
Things to consider
- Apprenticeships are only available in specific industries. Although the number of available apprenticeships is continuously growing, they’re not available in every sector, so if you want to do a job that isn’t covered, you’ll have to consider other higher education routes.
- Limited job flexibility. If you are completing an apprenticeship, it is going to be a qualification for a specific job role or specific industry. If you are unsure, or want to keep your options open, an apprenticeship may not be for you.
Option 3: College (Further Education) courses
Colleges offer an extremely broad range of qualifications, both academic and vocational. Academic qualifications allow you to study a small range of subjects to a high level, and include A Levels, International Baccalaureate (IB) and Cambridge Pre-U. Vocational qualifications offer practical, hands-on learning that prepares you for a specific job or industry, and include BTEC, Cambridge Technical and NVQ. To find out more about the courses on offer, you can check out our article on College qualifications and levels explained for a simple explanation of each one.
Advantages of college
- Lots of flexibility. Colleges offer a lot of flexibility and variety. Not only can you choose from academic or vocational courses, but you also benefit from smaller class sizes, and the opportunity to attend your classes in the evening or part-time.
- Low cost. Colleges are usually free (unless you go to a private college or sixth form). If you stay at home for the duration of your studies, you’ll be saving lots of money that would otherwise go towards accommodation.
- Variety of destinations. Many college qualifications will enable you to go on to university, an apprenticeship or a job.
Things to consider
- Some careers and employers require further study. Some careers, such as those in Law or Medicine, will require you to have a full university degree. There are also some employers who only recruit employees with a degree. However, there is nothing stopping you from completing your college qualifications first and then applying to university!
Making a decision that’s right for you
Try to attend college and university open days (we have a great article on how to get the most out of them here), or see if you can shadow someone in a similar role to the apprenticeship you’re considering. You can also keep your options open and apply to all three, and only decide once you have your offers.
Whichever option you go for, try not to put too much pressure on yourself to make a decision that you’ll be happy with forever - people move between different jobs and courses all the time - so it’s OK if you don’t have it all completely figured out!