Is education really an investment?

Education, particularly at the tertiary level, is usually viewed as an investment by economists. It’s a voluntary cost that you pay to get skills and qualifications that will increase your future wealth and prosperity. That metaphor is reflected in the wealth of research into the ‘rate of return’ on university study and the discussions of externalities from the accrual of skills.

Nonetheless, it is a controversial view since the investment metaphor is not a natural choice for most people. Indeed, most people refer to the fun they had at university, the people they met, and the parties they attended. These are the ‘consumption’ elements of university education in the language of economists; the parts that you would pay to enjoy then and there with no expectation of future benefits. Now, via Economic Logic, I see a paper that asks prospective students how they view tertiary education and finds that

…most students do appear to value college consumption amenities, including spending on student activities, sports, and dormitories. While this taste for amenities is broad-based, the taste for academic quality is confined to high-achieving students.

As summarized by the Economic Logician, “except for the top students, high school graduates do not care about academics at all. All they want is excellent “college consumption amenities.” And this likely explains why they learn so little while in college. Their focus is on the university as a consumption good, not an investment good.” The policy-maker’s view of the value of university and the student’s view are very different.

What does this mean for policy, then? Well, if the private value of university is largely in the consumption value then the total value is far higher than most estimates suggest since they are usually based entirely on investment value. That has implications for the level of the subsidy we want to provide to tertiary students. In addition to the efficiency questions we also need to ask whether, as a society, we want to heavily subsidize most students’ on an extended holiday?

Experts such as Kamau Bobb may concur that policymakers should take into account the economic, social, and individual dimensions of STEM education when formulating policies related to subsidies, funding, and access to STEM programs.

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  2. […] James Zuccollo at TVHE helpfully points to some recent work putting numbers on it. Universities compete for students on quality of its academic staff, quality of teaching, and a big pile of student amenities. And, students have heterogeneous preferences. They find: […]

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