Literature on the profitability of tertiary education indicates that university graduates enjoy better occupational outcomes than secondary school graduates. Yet, these claims are often based on simple mean comparisons of wages and employment opportunities, disregarding dropout risks, opportunity costs and field-of-study heterogeneity. This study tackles these issues by estimating short and long-term returns of the university investment in Italy while emphasizing the aforementioned aspects neglected in previous studies. Relying on several nationally representative data sources, we show that the profitability of university studies is low on average, mainly because of the modest wage gaps between young secondary and tertiary graduates. According to our simulations, the economic gains from university studies arise only in the long run, when the entry opportunity costs are counterbalanced by the higher wages. However, for Humanities this does not happen even in late career stages.

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