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The benefits of having rich parents and studying economics

Research published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that graduates from wealthier family backgrounds earn significantly more than those from poorer backgrounds. If you compare the 20% of graduates from the richest backgrounds with the remaining 80%, the average earnings gap in 2012/13, 10 years after graduation, was £8000 per year for men and £5300 for women. Even when you take graduates in similar degrees from similar universities, there is still a gap of around 10% between those from richer and those from poorer backgrounds.

The research also shows that in 2012/13, 10 years after graduation, the median earnings for economics graduates was the second highest of any subject (just behind graduates in medicine) and that at the 90th percentile economics graduates had the highest earnings (£93 900 for women and £121 400 for men) of any subject. In fact, graduates in economics were the only males at this percentile earning over £100 000. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) As the Press Release to the IFS working paper states:

For males, it is estimated that approximately 12% of economics graduates earned above £100 000 some ten years after graduation; by contrast, 6% of those studying medicine or law earned more than £100 000.

For females, it is estimated that approximately 9% of economics graduates earned above £100 000 some ten years after graduation; by contrast, just 1% of those studying medicine and 3% of those studying law did so.

For some subjects, graduates earned little more than non-graduates.

Those studying the creative arts had the lowest earnings, and indeed earned no more on average than non-graduates.

The research also shows that earnings vary substantially by gender and university. For those earning £8000 or more, the median earnings for male graduates 10 years after graduation was £30 000 (compared with £21 000 for non-graduates), whereas for women it was £27 000 (compared with £18 000 for non-graduates).

Earnings are substantially higher for graduates from some universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and the LSE. “At the other end of the spectrum, there were some institutions (23 for men and 9 for women) where the median graduate earnings were less than those of the median non-graduate ten years on.” Differences in graduate earnings by university tend to compound the difference by students’ family background as those from poorer backgrounds disproportionately attend universities with lower average graduate earnings by discipline.

The following articles consider the findings and their implications for higher education policy

Graduates from wealthy backgrounds reap earnings benefits Times Higher Education, John Morgan (13/4/16)
Graduate Earnings Guided By Parents’ Wealth, Institute For Fiscal Studies Report Finds Huffington Post, George Bowden (13/4/16)
Graduates from poorer backgrounds earn less than richer peers on same course, major international study finds Independent. Oliver Wright (13/4/16)
Richer students have higher graduate income, study finds The Guardian (13/4/16)
Want a Higher Salary? It Helps If You’re a Man With Rich Parents Bloomberg, Robert Hutton (13/4/16)
Economics graduates are in the money Why Study Economics? Economics in Action blog (15/4/16)

IFS paper
What and where you study matter for graduate earnings – but so does parents’ income IFS Press Release (13/4/16)
How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background IFS Working Paper W16/06, Jack Britton, Lorraine Dearden, Neil Shephard and Anna Vignoles (13/4/16)

Free Online Statistics – Students & qualifiers Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA)
Applications and acceptances for types of higher education course – 2015 UCAS
What do graduates do? Higher Education Careers Services Unit


  1. For what reasons are graduates from rich backgrounds likely to earn substantially more than graduates from poor backgrounds?
  2. Why are graduates in economics likely to earn more than graduates in other subjects, especially those in the top percentile of earners from any given subject?
  3. How might marginal productivity help to explain the differences in earnings of different graduates?
  4. What are meant by ‘soft skills’. Why may students from richer backgrounds have better soft skills in the context of (a) university admission and (b) getting a job on graduation?
  5. Why are female graduates likely to earn less than male graduates with the same class of degree in the same subject?
  6. What could be done by (a) universities and (b) the government to increase social mobility?
  7. Do you think that the findings of the research have implications for the way students’ study is funded? Explain.
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