Stories | August 21, 2013

Five numbers to help answer “is university worth it?”

The academic year starts for many university and college students in a few weeks – in the northern hemisphere at least.

The choice of what – or even whether – to study is complex, with many factors in play. We take a look at five numbers relevant to the decision of whether student life is a path to take.

Academics in the United Kingdom calculate a degree improves “later lifetime income” by about 30% on average for women and by about 20% for men. But the University of Warwick’s Andrew Oswald wrote in a piece for The Observer newspaper that such averages hide a lot of variation, and that going to a “top” university and getting better grades tend to lead to greater income gains.

However these earnings premiums also vary by location. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OCED) says a large premium can indicate the short supply of highly educated workers in a country – whereas if there is a larger supply of graduates, they may tend to command less of a premium for wages. Its 2013 Education at a Glance shows that in Canada and Austria, more than 15% of tertiary graduates earn half the median income or less. In contrast, 50% of graduates in Brazil, Chile and Portugal earn twice as much as the median worker. Given the costs of study (both in fees and potentially not earning income during term time), it signals financial risk in investing in education could well be higher in different employment markets.

There seems to be a link between going to university and getting a job. The unemployment rate of tertiary graduates in Europe is lower than that of non-graduates, with the OECD average unemployment rate for graduates at 4.7% in 2011 compared with around 7% for high school finishers.

Education is not just for people in their teens and 20s, with the OECD showing 4.9% of Australians aged 40 and over enrolled as full or part-time students in private or public institutions in 2011. New Zealand (4.1%) and Belgium (4%) also have high rates of over 40s studying, compared to the OECD average rate of 1.5%.

Going to university is not a purely financial decision. The research cited by Oswald notes more time spent in education is associated with increased happiness and health – and there is also opportunity for cultural exchange. French students most often studied abroad as part of the European Union’s Erasmus student exchange project in 2008/9, with 28,300 French included in the 198,600 participants that year. Eurostat figures show Spain was the primary host country, welcoming 33,200 incoming students.

eZonomics team
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