The impact of undergraduate degrees on lifetime earnings

Document type
Britton, Jack; Dearden, Lorraine; van de Erve, Laura
Institute for Fiscal Studies
Date of publication
29 February 2020
Education and Skills, Employment
Social welfare
Material type

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Going to university is a very good investment for most students. Over their working lives, men will be £130,000 better off on average by going to university after taxes, student loan repayments and foregone earnings are taken into account. For women, this figure is £100,000. (These and other numbers are in 'discounted present value' terms, which means counting earnings later in life less than those earned earlier on. Without discounting, returns look much bigger.)

However, these average returns mask large differences across individuals. So while about 80% of students are likely to gain financially from attending university, this report estimates that one in five students – or about 70,000 every year - would actually have been better off financially had they not gone to university.

At the other end of the spectrum, the 10% of graduates with the highest returns will on average gain around half a million pounds in discounted present value terms. Much of this variation is explained by the subject studied at university: students of medicine and law, for example, achieve very high returns on average, while few of those studying creative arts will gain financially from their degrees at all.

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