Economics » Positive Externalities and Public Goods » Why the Private Sector Under Invests in Innovation

Why Invest in Human Capital?

Why Invest in Human Capital?

The investment in anything, whether it is the construction of a new power plant or research in a new cancer treatment, usually requires a certain upfront cost with an uncertain future benefit. The investment in education, or human capital, is no different. Over the span of many years, a student and her family invest significant amounts of time and money into that student’s education. The idea is that higher levels of educational attainment will eventually serve to increase the student’s future productivity and subsequent ability to earn. Once the numbers are crunched, does this investment pay off for the student?

Almost universally, economists have found that the answer to this question is a clear “Yes.” For example, several studies of the return to education in the United States estimate that the rate of return to university education is approximately 10%. Data in this table, from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers, Third Quarter 2014, demonstrate that median weekly earnings are higher for workers who have completed more education. While these rates of return will beat equivalent investments in Treasury bonds or savings accounts, the estimated returns to education go primarily to the individual worker, so these returns are private rates of return to education.

Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers, Third Quarter 2014 (Source:

 Less than a High School DegreeHigh School Degree, No UniversityBachelor’s Degree
Median Weekly Earnings (full-time workers over the age of 25)$488$668$1,101

What does society gain from investing in the education of another student? After all, if the government is spending taxpayer dollars to subsidize public education, society should expect some kind of return on that spending. Again, economists like George Psacharopoulos have found that, across a variety of nations, the social rate of return on schooling is also positive. After all, positive externalities exist from investment in education. While not always easy to measure, according to Walter McMahon, the positive externalities to education typically include better health outcomes for the population, lower levels of crime, a cleaner environment and a more stable, democratic government. For these reasons, many nations have chosen to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize primary, secondary, and higher education. Education clearly benefits the person who receives it, but a society where most people have a good level of education provides positive externalities for all.

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