The Opportunity Cost of Higher Education

December 3rd, 2015 by Potato

A Conference Board of Canada report on PhD graduates and careers came out (“Inside and Outside the Academy: Valuing and Preparing PhDs for Careers”). Much is being made of the economic implications, especially the grad students made terrible life choices angle, with this quote from the report seeming to get more play than all 135 other pages combined:

“Earning a PhD typically takes 8 to 12 years of study (or more) after completing high school, giving those with lower educational attainment an earnings head-start and initial advantage, which takes some time for a PhD graduate to catch and pass. To illustrate, compare a PhD who takes five years to finish his or her degree to a master’s graduate. If the PhD student had no paid employment during that time (which is unlikely given the nature of PhD funding), the master’s graduate will have earned $282,935 more than the PhD graduate by the time the PhD is earned. (See “Funding for PhD Students.”) With an average annual income of $69,267 or $12,680 more than the master’s graduate—it will take the PhD graduate just over 22 years—a substantial part of his or her working life—to close the cumulative earning gap. As such, while PhDs do see positive returns over master’s graduates, these returns are modest and, on average, the earnings of PhD graduates will not surpass master’s graduates until the later stages of their career.”

This is actually not pessimistic enough. The average PhD-holder will NEVER make up the earnings difference if you factor in the time value of money — worse if you make it more apples-to-apples. That is, if you consider that not only do you earn less for much of your working life doing a PhD, you also have to live like a grad student for many of those years.

One of my professors did this calculation years ago, showing that despite doing quite well in his career outcomes (one of the few to become a high-ranking professor), if he wanted a job working with MRIs he could have got his MR-technician certificate and lived like a grad student and post-doc for the first few years, banking the extra salary, and even earning considerably more at the end of his career would never allow him catch up to the compound growth of those initial savings. The opportunity cost of doing a PhD is huge (and this is for a STEM PhD).

Imagine a 22-year-old graduate from a bachelor’s program finding a job that makes $45k pre-tax. They decide to match their lifestyle and spending to their grad-school-bound friend (solidarity!), who lives off of $17,000 between a stipend, odd jobs, and volunteering in research experiments. They pack away $19,000 in just their first year, and invest it wisely, and keep that up all through their friend’s graduate degree. By the time the PhD student gains an honorific and finds a higher-paying job at age 30, the guy who just got a bachelor’s degree has a net worth of $273k1. They then both start living large, spending $47,000 per year on lifestyle expenses (which the bachelor’s holder can afford thanks to raises over the intervening years), and the PhD-holder socks away 15% of their new, higher income, building wealth to retirement.

But despite making more while living the same lifestyle, the doctor comes well shy of breaking even at age 65, with $989k less in retirement savings than the bachelor’s holder. Even with minimal (risk-free) time value to money and no investing, the doctor’s extra earnings are too marginal over the working types to surmount years of earnings and savings and compounding.

In real life there is only one person who lives that frugally when they don’t have to (and that was newsworthy) so the loss is somewhat illusory. But even saving just a few thousand per year straight out of school and banking their raises will let those who get straight to work get to enjoy higher quality of life earlier and still not lose out on lifetime savings relative to those who make terrible life choices.

(The peak of education appears to be a master’s degree — only two years sacrificed, and with enough earnings oomph that you pass the bachelor’s holder in 7 years).

However, not everything in life is about economic optimization. I could have made way more money if I had pursued business out of undergrad, or gone into a professional program instead of grad school, but I’m not exactly starving. And I do like science and what I do, and job satisfaction is not exactly value-less (just hard to value).

This article in University Affairs has some good discussion on the report, including this quote:

Not one person I know who has a PhD did it for the economic returns that they calculated in advance. Maybe the argument implicit here is that this is what we all should have been doing? That we should be rational actors in a market for the credential that will provide maximum returns.

I don’t know what to say. Yes? Economics shouldn’t be the sole reason to pursue a degree, especially not a doctorate. But the sacrifice and lack of payoff for doing one should not be totally ignored either, and we do need to raise a bit of awareness on that point before people start grad school. I did not know about the economic trade-off when I enrolled (at least, not the magnitude of the difference), and I was a relatively money-savvy undergraduate student. I think there is a need to get the message out there that doing a PhD is a labour of love that mostly likely will not produce any economic benefit.

That UA article references this one in the Post: “We’re letting a bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds dictate our labour market composition, and they’re not given a lot of advice to make decisions about what might be in their best interests.” It’s not much better at 21 when you have to decide whether to be awesome and go to grad school to unlock the secrets of the Universe, or be lame and go make a big pile of money and happiness and social adjustment and have kids while you’re still fertile and shit.

Anyway, the common belief amongst 3rd and 4th year undergrads contemplating grad school is that it’s the path to take to eventually have more money and to get a secure job teaching at a university. Both notions are mostly wrong — grad school opens that path but it’s still a low-probability path. Unless working years start getting a lot longer2, most PhDs will not come out ahead financially; the awareness machine is already cranked to 11 telling us that most PhDs will go into non-academic careers. There are other good reasons to go to grad school, but that trade-off should be made with eyes open.

1. Assuming a 5% return on their investments and 4% annual raises.
2. Which if they do, will be thanks to longevity and brain research done by PhD students.
Final note: I believe that many people would still go on to grad school even with eyes fully open about the costs and trade-offs because they’re just wired for research and hopelessly optimistic about being in the minority that become faculty.

4 Responses to “The Opportunity Cost of Higher Education”

  1. The DQYDJ Weekender, 12/5/2015 - Don't Quit Your Day Job... Says:

    […] Blessed by the Potato, our favorite nightshade discusses the opportunity costs of higher education, especially for the […]

  2. Kapitalust Says:

    Economics was a huge reason I stopped immediately after my masters.

    Another huge reason was a prof I respected during my masters program telling our class not to bother with a Ph.D. Unless you were super keen and dedicated because the job market is slim.

    As much as I loved what I studied, the back of the envelope calculus made no sense for me to pursue.

    God I love having a job and money to spend and invest.

  3. Saturday Morning Dump: Alberta Recession, Star Wars, Peep Shows - Financial Uproar Says:

    […] Potato takes a look at the opportunity cost of getting a PhD and comes to the conclusion it isn’t worth it. Nice try, bucko. Education is always worth it. You can’t put a price on an education. That […]

  4. John Ryan Says:

    This post closely mirroring my feelings about my PhD work (and the report). One of my friends called doing our PhDs “financial suicide”, which seems a bit dramatic to me, but it certainly wasn’t a savvy decision from a financial perspective.