Some high-return degrees for both men and women include law, economics or medicine. Source: Shutterstock

Some subject areas offer better financial returns than others.

Research from the London-based Institute of Fiscal Studies has found that there is “substantial variation in net lifetime returns across subjects” taken by graduates, but that the differences are reduced after accounting student loans and taxes. 

Using projected earnings, IFS said for women, the financial gains of studying creative arts and languages are “close to zero”. However, high-return subjects such as law, economics or medicine, where graduates can make more than £250,000. 

Which subject will give you the best financial returns? Source: Institute of Fiscal Studies

They add that “almost all women who studied social care are projected to achieve positive returns despite the average return being relatively low”. 

Subjects that have relatively low returns but a high share of positive returns are nursing and education, adding “while these subjects are not the most lucrative on average, they see very little variation in average earnings and offer solid returns to essentially all women who study them”. 

Financial returns by subject for men

Conversely, IFS found that returns vary more by subject for men. 

For instance, the creative arts and social care exhibit strongly negative returns on average, while those who studied medicine or economics have average net returns of around £500,000. 

Meanwhile, the average net lifetime returns for agriculture, English, physical sciences and communications are around zero. 

At the other end of the spectrum, maths, computing, medicine and economics offer positive returns to almost all men who study them.

IFS notes that these figures take into account the impact of selection into HE, taxes paid and student loan repayments as well as maintenance loans
received. Source: Institute of Fiscal Studies

“In many subjects, returns differ a lot across individuals, with more than 10 percent of those who studied economics expected to get a discounted return of more than £1 million and the bottom 10 percent expected to see returns below £70,000,” they said. 

They add that for women, subjects that are associated with higher earnings do not necessarily have higher returns because students of some subjects have more favourable background conditions than others.

This determines the incomes they could have earned had they chosen not to go to university.

Returns by university type

Their analysis found little difference between average lifetime returns across university types for women. 

“Within all types, a large majority of women benefit from attending HE. Only the top end of the distribution of women attending Russell Group universities can expect higher lifetime returns from going to university than women who attended universities elsewhere,” it said.

“However, average returns for men who studied at Russell Group universities are high at almost £250,000 on average, while they note that “a sizable minority of men who attend non-Russell Group universities will see negative returns in discounted net present value terms”.

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