21 February 2011

What difference does a degree make?

Colchester Campus

Dr Renee Luthra from the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) and Dr Jennifer Flashman (Nuffield College, Oxford) have been awarded a British Academy Small Grant for their project entitled Who benefits the most from post-secondary schooling?: A cross-national comparison of selection and the economic returns to post-secondary education.

The research will examine the effect of a college or university degree on workers’ earnings, comparing the wage gains for post-secondary graduates across four countries: the UK, Germany, Sweden, and the United States. The project aims to explore the worth of a University or college degree and will ask if all students stand to gain the same benefits from higher education in terms of their future earnings, or whether some students gain more than others. It will also ask how differences in education and labour market policy impact the returns on investments in higher education.

The researchers will use sophisticated statistical techniques that allow the comparison between closely matched workers with and without a post-secondary degree and anticipate that estimated earning differences across countries will shed light on what policies help workers gain the most from their training, and which do not.

Explaining the motivation behind the project, Renee Luthra said: “Given a limited amount of resources and the current prospect of an extended recession, it is critical to understand what is gained from the investments in post secondary education by both individuals and the state.”

Recent research in the US found that students who attend college actually have less to gain from a college degree than those who do not attend (Brand and Xie 2010). Whether this mismatch in educational opportunity holds in countries with less expensive, but more selective higher education systems, is a central question of the research project.

Research assistants are currently working to harmonise data sources across the four countries, and initial findings are to be reported in Summer 2011. Findings will be reported in academic journals, and the harmonised data source made publicly available through the UK Data Archive at the University of Essex.

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