With the huge growth in enrolment in higher education, the key question facing young people today is not so much “what to study” as “whether to study”. Taking a methodologically innovative approach, this paper measures the net present value of university education and compares returns from studying a range of different subjects. We use data from five European countries (France, Italy, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia) and include (opportunity) costs in the computation. Results suggest that enrolling in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses is often not the best investment for students, especially female students. In choosing what to study, therefore, students are taking decisions that are consistent with their own private returns. This suggests that policy-makers should consider changing the incentives offered if they wish to change students’ behaviour.
Miroslav Beblavý is Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies and Professor at the Comenius University. Sophie Lehouelleur was a Leonardo da Vinci intern at CEPS. Ilaria Maselli is Research Fellow at CEPS.