Does getting a degree make sense?

ABC Factcheck looked at Christopher Pyne’s claim that university graduates, over a lifetime, earn 75 per cent more than someone who doesn’t go to university.  Factcheck found that the financial case for going to university varies considerably depending on who did the calculations, assumptions, the profession and the grades obtained.  This post uses some of the Factcheck data to ask whether going to university makes sense.

I started university in 1961 and was paid by the government and my employer to get a chemical engineering degree.  Looking back, the decision to go to university turned out to be a good one.  In tangible terms, the profession paid me well enough to live a comfortable life while saving enough for a comfortable old age.  It is worth noting however, that some of the plant operators who have worked for me took great satisfaction in showing me their pay sheets.  They knew they got more than me even though most of them left school at the end of their year at high school.

Going to university was also a good decision in terms of intangibles.  I wouldn’t have missed the university experience for worlds.  The jobs I have had since leaving university were far more satisfying to me than a job requiring less education would have been.  (It always struck me that one of the ironies of our society is that the people with the most satisfying jobs were normally paid far more than those with the boring, physically hard jobs.)

In some ways the degree was a trap.  If I hadn’t gone to university I may well have had more impetus to go into business like some of my less educated relatives.  (For example, there was Uncle Ted who left school at the end of primary and did quite well thank you as a farmer, milk processor and real estate agent.)

Which brings me back to the Christopher Pyne claims:

“University students who have a less than 1 per cent unemployment rate and who, over a lifetime, earn 75 per cent more than someone who doesn’t go to university, can borrow every single dollar from the taxpayer to go to university,” he said on May 5. And: 

Mr Pyne has repeated the wage gap statistic, telling ABC’s Lateline on May 20 that graduates earn “75 per cent more over a lifetime than people without a university degree” and that they earn “$1 million more than people who don’t go to university”.

To be fair, Pyne’s statement was not based on a figment of his imagination.  Factcheck reported that:

A spokesman for Mr Pyne said he based his earnings statistics on a March 2014 policy note,“Graduate Skills and National Productivity”, published by the Group of Eight, a collection of representatives from the top Australian universities which will benefit most from the Government’s planned changes to higher education.

The report uses 2011 census data to graph earnings by age for full-time workers with no tertiary education, vocational training, and a bachelor’s degree. “At almost every point along the profile, graduate wages exceed school leaver wages by 75 per cent or more,” the report said.

I won’t go through all the studies factcheck considered.  (They are worth reading to see how assumptions and data affect the results.)   The one that appealed to me most was the CLMR report.  This report calculated a “rate of return” over a lifetime on the investment in time and money made by a student.  The 2010 report, titled “The Private Rate of Return to a University Degree in Australia”, said:

An annual rate of return on investment in education by the average university graduate was about 14 per cent, which means they earn about 14 per cent more each year than a non-graduate, taking into account their education costs.

Report author Professor Phil Lewis said:

Even the rate of return calculations rely on various assumptions, not least which discipline the student is undertaking. The report says for males, the average rate of return is about 15 per cent per year of education, and 12 per cent for women. But for some degrees, such as arts, that annual rate of return is 3 per cent for males and 9 per cent for females.

“For the average student, the rate of return is quite good. But there is a whole crowd of people where that is not the case,”

Professor Lewis also said that:

For about one in every five students, their degree is not financially worthwhile at the moment. If proposed changes to higher education made courses more expensive and introduced interest on HECS loans, he expects that figure could rise, possibly to one in three or worse.

The above calculation probably assumes that a person who has qualified to go to university but decides not to do so will earn the same amount as someone who failed to meet university.  In practice, I would expect the person who qualified to be able to be earn more.

The return on investment not only varies with degree.  It also varies with effort:

 “The evidence by different subjects is more sketchy. If we look at international evidence from, say, the UK we find some interesting points. There is a big return to effort – getting distinctions or better – perhaps adds an additional 50 per cent to the dollar value over a lifetime compared to having lower grades.

Factcheck concentrated on the return to the individual.  However, any discussion on subsidizing education needs to consider the benefits to the country as well as the individual.  Firstly there are the increases in taxes paid over a lifetime  Then there is the increases in efficiency, opportunities identified and better problem solving as the workforce becomes better educated.  (An old boss used to say that graduates should be contributing over 6 times salary to company profits. )


  1. The changes to higher education policy will increase the cost of enrolling in some of the more economically desirable courses at the higher status universities.
  2. This is not going to have much effect on the better off but it may deter students from low income families.   This is in line with the general thrust of the 2014 budget in the sense that it will  help protect the children of the entitled rich avoid competition from the bright children of the un-entitled poor.
  3. The proposal to charge above inflation interest rates on HECS loans will have the largest effect on idealistic graduates who go into relatively low paying jobs such as teaching, caring for the elderly etc.   It will have a much lower effect on graduates going into better paid jobs in industries such as banking and mining.
  4. Working hard and getting good results really does make a financial differences.
  5. There are many people who will not benefit financially from becoming a university graduate.  
  6. There are intangible benefits that come from being a university graduate.   These can be more important to many people than any financial benefits.


7 thoughts on “Does getting a degree make sense?”

  1. Seems to me Mr Pyne is making an excellent argument for why he, along with Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott, should contribute to the cost of his tertiary education (and the 17 or so years interest he owes us).

  2. John, way back about 30 years ago I was told that 50% of people doing music degrees made no use of the degrees professionally. No doubt this has changed to the detriment of society.

  3. APSEMA Professional update April 94 said: “A survey of engineering graduates who completed their studies in the last three years show that only 53% of graduates during this time have found employment as professional engineers. The remainder were:
    Unemployed – 22.8 % (Over twice the national average at the time.)
    Non prof eng jobs – 13.9%
    Further studies – 7.9%
    This failure to employ new graduates came back to bite the engineering engineering industry during the mining industry construction boom. There was a chronic shortage of experienced project engineers with the 15 odd years experience these sort of people need.
    At the time, unemployment for chemical engineers was 20% – the only time in my working life when I didn’t have a job. Engineers had a higher unemployment rate than the average for a number of reasons including reluctance to employ someone you suspected:
    Would be still looking for a professional job.
    Was smarter than the boss (and might take his job.)
    Wouldn’t take the crap that other people might accept.
    Were people like me who knew an awful lot about union tactics and industrial law.
    I would have hated to be one of those new music or engineering graduates with a HECS bill growing at 6% a year because Pyne knows that education is always a good investment.

  4. Brian

    (It always struck me that one of the ironies of our society is that the people with the most satisfying jobs were normally paid far more than those with the boring, physically hard jobs.)

    It always struck me that one of the ironies of our society is that the people with the most tedious, boring desk jobs were normally paid far more than those with excitingly challenging physically hard jobs.

    But I would think that, I’m in the ever changing construction industry where innovation abounds, new techniques, materials, tools…….

    One of the challenging aspects is teaching the young boys/men ( and the odd girl/women) from whatever social background that failed them academically to excel in working life and be proud of improvement.
    To instill diligence, self motivation and pride is a great reward.
    ( disclaimer: I reject any Government subsidies for apprentices )

  5. Jumpy: I was thinking of people like me who had far more interesting jobs than most of people who work at desks. But you are right, hard physical can be boring or challenging depending on the job and the attitude of the worker. What I liked about being a commissioning engineer was that the problems were new and challenging and that I could get my hands dirty without starting a strike.
    But i will stick to the original statement. You tend to get paid a lot more for doing a job that provides a lot of challenge and satisfaction.

  6. The Australia Institute pointed out that Christopher Pyne
    Made a speech to the Policy Exchange think-tank in London where he proclaimed the virtues of the USA’s tertiary education model. He heaped praise on the “competitive nature” of its offerings, declaring we have “much to learn” from its free-market fundamentals.
    The institute also pointed out some of the features of this academic utopia the Minister was referring included:

    The cost of education in the USA is skyrocketing. Tuition costs have expanded at a rate three times higher than inflation, every year. Between 2001 and 2011, the cost of a degree rose 70 per cent. It’s rising faster now.

    Student debt surpassed $1 trillion US dollars in 2011. That figure’s growing at around 10 per cent a year, compared with 1.6 per cent for non-student debt levels. At this rate, US students will owe more than Australia’s total GDP by 2020.

    But these figures don’t really tell the full story. There’s a human cost to this free-marketeering that doesn’t show up in the aggregate.

    Consider this hypothetical American scenario: two students get the same score on the SAT exam. The first comes from a family in the top-income quartile, the second comes from the bottom quartile. The first student is four times more likely to graduate with a degree than the second, poorer student….. Undergraduate dropout rates are higher in the United States than anywhere in the world, except for Hungary. The number one reason given for dropping out? Financial strain.
    The Abbott government insists the deregulation agenda will finally free higher education institutions to become “Australia’s Harvard”. Nearly half of Harvard’s undergraduates come from the USA’s wealthiest 4 per cent of families….

    I guess if what you want is to stop the smart children of the un-entitled poor competing with the children of the entitled rich then the US system has a lot going for it.

  7. Callum Pickering at Business Spectator talked aboutthe true cost of Abbott’s higher education reforms One of his big concerns was that the changes would discourage students from doing important courses in areas such as science and education.
    He also commented that

    It is important to note that there are no studies that contemplate the changes made in the budget. Every study I looked at considered the return to education based on a regulated HELP or HECS system.

    My take is that there is a need for radical reform to work related education. We need an education system that prepares students for a rapidly changing world and helps facilitate moves from one job to another. We certainly don’t need this poorly thought out brain burst from a minister who the appalling US system is the way to go.

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