Differences by Degree: Evidence of the Net Financial Rates of Return to Undergraduate Study for England and Wales
This paper uses the Quarterly Labour Force Survey, the latest and largest dataset available, to provide independent estimates of returns to higher education qualifications in the UK for graduates with different degree majors, class of first degree, and postgraduate qualifications. For reasons of sample size, we collapse various undergraduate degrees into four broad subject groups: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics - and here we also include Medicine); LEM (Law, Economics and Management), OSSAH (other social sciences, arts and humanities which includes languages), and COMB (those with degrees that combine more than one subject). We adopt a method which allows our data to identify the effects of experience on earnings separately from cohort effects in wages for different degree majors. We also allow for tuition fees and the tax system in calculating the NPV associated with higher education (and also the loan scheme). Ordinary Least Squares estimates show high average returns for women that does not differ by subject. For men, we find very large returns for LEM but not for other subjects. Degree class has large effects in all subjects suggesting the possibility of large returns to effort and ability. Postgraduate study has large effects, independently of first degree class. A large rise in tuition fees across all subjects has only a modest impact on relative rates of return suggesting that little substitution across subjects would occur. The strong message that comes out of this research is that even a large rise in tuition fees makes little difference to the quality of the investment – those subjects that offer high returns (LEM for men, and all subjects for women) continue to do so. And those subjects that do not (especially OSSAH for men) will continue to offer poor returns. The effect of fee rises is dwarfed by existing cross subject differences in returns.
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