Thursday, 25 August 2011

The economics of degrees.

A report in today’s Guardian cites an Office for National Statistics (ONS) study which shows that those with degrees earn more than those without. As is entirely predictable, someone then jumps to the conclusion that this shows that getting a degree is worthwhile.

In this case, it is Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK – at least she very much seems to imply that the ONS study demonstrates that getting a degree pays off.

The problem with the above line of argument is thus. Those with degrees tend to come from stable and/or middle class backgrounds, and these sort of people tend to earn more even when they DON’T have degrees. Thus to prove to what extent having a degree pays off financially, it is necessary to control for family background: something the ONS study does not do.

The only study I know of that DOES control for family background shows (as might be expected) that getting a degree DOES pay off, but the pay-off can be undramatic. In particular arts degrees for men are a waste of time from the purely commercial point of view.

As if to prove the point, the above Guardian article features a picture of a male graduate wandering the streets with a placard saying “Job wanted. History graduate. University of Kent. Interview me.”


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