British universities: Money and meaning
Studying a “useless” field at Oxbridge costs a mint in forgone earnings
SCEPTICS OF HIGHER education often complain that universities offer too many frivolous degrees with little value in the workplace. Since elite universities tend to produce higher-earning graduates than less selective institutions do, you might expect them to teach more practical courses. Yet data from Britain’s department for education show the opposite. Undergraduate students at prestigious universities are more likely to study purely academic fields such as philosophy and classics, whereas those at less choosy ones tend to pick vocational topics such as business or nursing.
What could explain this seeming contradiction? One reason is that employers treat a degree from a top university as a proxy for intelligence. This means that students at elite institutions can study bookish subjects and still squeak by financially. The median Cambridge graduate in a creative-arts subject—the university’s least lucrative group of courses, including fields such as music—earns around £25,000 ($32,400) at age 26. Economics students from less exalted universities, such as Hull, make a similar amount.
Yet even though Oxbridge students can pretend to read “Ulysses” for years and still expect a decent salary, they end up paying a large opportunity cost by pursuing the arts. That is because employers reserve the highest starting wages for students who both attended a leading university and also studied a marketable subject. Cambridge creative-arts graduates earn £11,000 more at age 26 than do those from Wrexham Glyndwr University, whose arts alumni are the lowest-earning in Britain. In contrast, Cambridge economics graduates make £44,000 more than do those from the University of Salford, where the economics course is the country’s least remunerative.
Many gifted arts students would struggle to crunch numbers. But for those who can excel at both, the cost of sticking with the arts, in terms of forgone wages, is steep. Cambridge creative-arts students have A-level scores close to those of economics students at Warwick, but earn about half as much. That is tantamount to giving up an annuity worth £500,000.
Who can afford such indulgence? The answer is Oxbridge students, who often have rich parents. At most universities, students in courses that lead to high-paying jobs, such as economics and medicine, tend to come from wealthier families, partly because such applicants are more likely to have the examination scores necessary to be accepted. At Oxbridge, however, no such correlation exists. History and philosophy students there come from richer parts of Britain, on average, than their peers studying medicine do.