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On the Map - Education and earnings - It still pays to graduate - but cost of HE could narrow the gap

Figures published by the university admissions service Ucas for the 2010 entry to higher education show that a record number of applicants either failed to find a place at university this autumn or withdrew from the application process. The question is: how will this affect their life chances?

Conventional wisdom dictates that graduates will have better opportunities for higher lifetime earnings than those who leave education at the end of secondary school. However, the media often seeks to focus on the small number of self-made millionaires, entertainers, sports stars and others who have made their wealth without going to university.

Nevertheless, as these figures for median earnings from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reveal, you have a smaller chance of earning below the median (the middle figure, rather than the average) with a degree than if you started work after secondary schooling.

New Zealand has the highest percentage of graduates earning below the median, at 36 per cent of those with first degrees. That is, however, still some eight percentage points below the country with the lowest proportion of those earning less than the median with no more than secondary schooling. This is Italy, where 44 per cent of secondary school-leavers earn below-median wages.

The advantage of a degree seems most starkly demonstrated in Belgium, where 61 per cent of those with secondary schooling earned below- median wages compared with just 20 per cent of those with a degree.

These figures are taken from the 25 to 64 age group, and the effects of recent increases in higher education participation and the impact of the economic climate on current job markets are not yet reflected in the outcomes. In addition, they only reveal whether earnings are more likely to be higher with a first degree, not whether this translates into a positive economic return after taking into account the cost of acquiring the extra education. Of course, obtaining a degree is not just about the extra earnings. Many interesting and satisfying jobs are only possible with a degree, and have never paid well.

John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education.

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