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Returns from university degree unequal, study finds

A study titled The Investment of a Lifetime? that tracked employment outcomes of a single cohort from 1991 to 2010 showed that, for most, a university degree is a lucrative investment.

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Most university graduates earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more over their careers than those with college or high-school credentials, according to a groundbreaking new study from Statistics Canada that tracked thousands of graduates for 20 years.

It also found top-earning men can make millions more than the best-paid women from age 35 to 54. The study – titled The Investment of a Lifetime? – tracks employment outcomes of a single cohort from 1991 to 2010 and shows that, for most, a university degree is a lucrative investment. Men with a bachelor's degree earned $732,000 more than high-school graduates on average, while women with degrees made $448,000 more.

But the top 5 per cent of men make at least $2.5-million more than high-school graduates, while the disparity for women at the same level is much less, at about $576,000. The new data suggest a host of factors such as ability, career choice and gender strongly affect lifetime earnings.

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"It's still the case, and as far back as we can observe it's always been the case, that university degrees and to some extent college certificates pay off compared to high-school diplomas," said the study's author, economist Marc Frenette.

Gaps in earnings are especially evident between levels of education, but even among those with degrees, major inequities persist and grow as careers progress. Mr. Frenette says the data from his survey suggest a major factor behind the wage disparity between top-earning men and women is that men are more likely to make high premiums in the private sector, while women are more likely to choose public-sector jobs where the best salaries are often lower.

Still, a university education does not guarantee a big boost in earnings. The bottom 5 per cent of men with degrees make at most $89,000 more over a career than high-school-educated men, while the lowest-earning 5 per cent of university-educated women make only $34,000 more in total. And when Mr. Frenette adjusted his results to account for scores on cognitive tests measuring literacy, numeracy and problem-solving abilities, salary gaps narrowed by a third.

"A university degree has some amount of risk," said David Green, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Vancouver School of Economics. "Even at the low end, you're probably doing better than the high-school graduate. But it's like any other investment."

The average college graduate earned $248,000 more than those with high-school diplomas and women an extra $179,000 – much lower than the average university graduate, but better than the 10 per cent of degree-holders with the lowest earnings.

Graduates of both university and college also enjoyed more years of coverage in employer-sponsored pension plans and suffered fewer layoffs than those whose education ended after high school.

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