Pros and Cons of Having No University Degree in Singapore

The year is 2005 (wow I’m old) and I got pretty good results for my O-Level. It was also then, at the grand ripe age of 17, I decided I was done with academic studies, despite enrolling in a junior college. My A-Level results that followed were horrific: D’s across the board.

With such abysmal grades, no local university would accept me; I tried with all three major schools then: NUS, NTU, and SMU. I applied for courses like Law and Business… with a triple D result I was just trying my luck, and predictably I received rejection letter after rejection letter. I quickly ruled out going to a private uni because I felt like private degrees were belittled in Singapore – no offence meant to private degree holders but it is perhaps the state of affairs in Singapore that job applicants with private degrees are often given less pay and face discrimination in the job market.

The last remaining choice was to go overseas to pursue a degree, but this meant very high costs. Not only are the tuition fees expensive, there are accommodation and living costs to consider. Spending years away from my family and country just didn’t seem like an attractive option to me back then.

Let’s get to work first

Fresh out of NS, with no university admission to look forward to and armed only with an A Level certificate which is even less useful than a diploma when it comes to job application, I decided to do part-time work first and see how it went. Those who have been following my site and YouTube would know that it went like this: I got recruited into an insurance agency, before moving to an IFA to try provide ethical advice, then I started a tuition business with a friend and till date continue to teach, on top of side-hustling with my site and YouTube channel.

It seems like I have obviated the need for a degree to be financially sustainable in Singapore, but I think it might be helpful if I listed the pros and cons of not having a university degree.

Cons

Limited job opportunities
Perhaps the most obvious downside of not having a degree, one’s job opportunities are severely lacking should one not be a university graduate. You might not even be granted an interview without a degree for many jobs, and in a country where graduates are the norm, it’s understandable that non-graduates would be overlooked.

I have heard stories of people without degrees working their ways up the corporate ladder and eventually earning the same or even surpassing their graduate peers, so perhaps it is on me that I didn’t even try applying for any corporate job. To be realistic, however, such stories are likely to be the exception rather than the norm.

Reduced social network
Going to university and spending 3 to 4 years there also mean a chance to network and make friends with other would-be graduates. This is great for one’s social network, be it for business or social reasons. I keep in touch with a couple of classmates from JC… and that’s about it. No university friends to have coffee with every now and then or sell insurance to. Oh well.

Missing out on a rite of passage
When virtually all my peers have gone to university, I cannot help but feel like I have missed out on an important milestone in life. I only have a vague idea of what terms like GPA and mod credits mean, and can’t appreciate the significance of a second upper. When people talk fondly about their “hall life”, I can’t relate, having missed this rite of passage that most have undergone.

There is (some) discrimination
Unfortunately, a person without degree would likely face some discrimination even outside of job applications. It could be in social settings, where a innocuous question of which university you attended becomes a conversation dead-end, or people asking pointedly with a mixture of concern and incredulity why I am not furthering my studies.

Such discrimination could also be found in the work environment, where one could be passed over for promotion or receive less pay increment simply because of the lack of paper qualifications. I can’t say I’ve experienced this personally, but I did encounter some parents who were rather judgmental that I lack a university degree, even though my string of A’s in my O-Level exams should make me more than qualified to teach their teenaged kids.

Pros

Saved 3 to 4 years
Every cloud has a silver lining, and not going to university also means I saved 3 to 4 years of my life, and in that time I could explore self-employment and gain real-world experience. Admittedly, I spent more than 4 years of my life working at an IFA earning barely nothing, but it still meant that I had some income and a lot of stories to tell on my YouTube channel I suppose.

I have also noticed graduates who join the insurance or tuition industry after spending years getting their degree, so comparatively I feel like I didn’t miss much by not going to university; in fact I had a few years of head start.

Saved tens of thousands of dollars
Even at the subsidised rate Singaporeans get, a full uni course can cost upwards of $30,000 over dollars, not to mention the years of opportunity costs one misses out on if he/she goes to work. While many graduates leave school with essentially a negative networth because they have a school loan to service, I was completely debt-free, and earning money right after National Service.

Going for a private degree or heading overseas to further my studies would be even costlier – likely the downpayment of a nice 1-bedroom condo. That’s quite a lot of debt to start one’s working years, and doing without such an expense is certainly an advantage provided one can still make a good living without paper qualifications.

Taking the road less travelled
Robert Frost’s famous poem talks about how taking the road less travelled has made all the difference, and in hindsight, that might just be true for me. In over a decade of self-employment, I’ve met clients, both good and absolutely terrible ones, taught students until it became a business, and have even done YouTube videos for some income… I’ve always thought of myself as Mario collecting coins wherever I can, and the fact that I managed to collect enough coins to have a pretty comfortable standard of living in not-so-cheap Singapore is kinda crazy.

I wonder if I’d have found the joys (and woes) of being self-employed if I had gone to a university, dutifully working a 9 to 5 job as a cog in the corporate machinery. Perhaps I was always meant for the path less travelled.

One can indeed survive in Singapore without a degree, but be realistic

Despite the pervasiveness of graduates and the general obsession with paper qualifications, I have found survival without a degree entirely possible in Singapore. One needs to be realistic though: starting pays for non-graduates are certainly not “retire early” amounts, and degrees still play a role in promotions and salary negotiations.

But we live in the “gig economy” now, and if you can find some way to generate an income outside of corporate jobs, perhaps you don’t need a degree after all. You save years and tens of thousands of dollars, and… you can’t have an expired degree if you don’t have a degree. Take that, Ang Wei Neng!

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Keep up to date on the best cashback/mile cards, savings accounts, attractive deals, and more tips to maximise your financial wellbeing by subscribing to my Telegram channel.

Subscribe to the channel, then join the group chat. You would often benefit from the tips exclusively shared in the group chat!

Disclaimer: I may receive an affiliate/referral fee when you sign up for services/products on this site, and such fees keep the site running. I would only recommend services/products I would personally use or recommend to my own friends and family, but I do not provide any warranty or guarantee for the quality of these services/products. Please exercise due diligence when signing up for any service/product as I will not be liable for any personal loss, financial or otherwise. None of the information here constitutes personal financial advice. Thank you for supporting my site!

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