How much does it cost to educate a person from the first day of class to the moment they get their undergraduate degree? The numbers can vary widely, but if you’re in the UK or US, you could easily buy a new house for the same amount.

If you were buying a house, you would do research and consider the value of your investment before spending a penny. Few of us put in the same amount of effort when examining education. I think part of the reason is that school can feel like it’s free because it’s often subsidised.

There’s no such thing as a free education, though. In assessing the value of this huge investment, it’s important to know where the amounts come from and whether or not they’re justified in remaining so high.

Cost of Education in the UK and US

We’ll start by dividing education into two stages: grade school while we’re young, followed by our time at university.

The average cost of educating a child in the UK in 2018/19 was around £73,000. If we include other expenses covered by parents (books, uniforms, transportation), we can conservatively set the total cost of getting an education at £100,000.

In the USA, the estimated yearly cost of school ranges from $7,000 to $20,000 depending on the state of residence. Add in the same expenses as above and multiply across 12 years of schooling and we arrive at a total between $100,000 and $260,000.

The Cost of Going to University

A 2018 report released by HSBC found that most undergraduate degrees at public universities in the US cost $26,290 a year, with private university fees rising to $60,000. Over four years that adds up to a low-end total of $105,160.

In addition to actual fees paid for a university education, there’s also a measurement known as opportunity cost. This number represents income that could have been earned if a person started a career instead of going to university. If you attend university in the US your estimated opportunity cost is $40,000 per year.

Combining these figures we can estimate the total cost of attending university in the US is between $185,000 and $400,000 for a 4-year undergraduate degree.

In the UK annual tuition fees are capped at £9,250. If we use the same methodology as above and set the opportunity cost between £25,000 and £30,000 per annum, our ‘true cost’ of getting a 3-year bachelor degree in the UK is between £85,000 and £120,000.

Now let’s add everything up.

In the US it costs approximately $472,500 (£371,250) to educate a single person from grade school through college. In the UK it costs £202,500 ($257,352).

What about Free School?

Unless we’re paying for it out of pocket (or out of our parents’ pockets), most of us are used to thinking of school as “free.” The cost is covered through taxes.

Spreading out the burden of cost doesn’t make it disappear, however. In economically developed OECD nations, the average national budget reserved for education is 4%. As of 2020, the figure sits at 4.2% in the UK, but it rose as high as 5.7% in 2010. Those percentages may sound small, but at their peak they represented as much as £104 billion.

Even countries with reputations for affordable education bear similar cost burdens. Public universities in Germany are funded by the state, with students usually limited to covering a €250 semester enrolment fee. If we add in the opportunity cost and multiply the figures to cover getting a 4-year bachelor degree, the final cost sits between €98,000 and €224,000.

We all shoulder these fees, whether we realise it or not. It would be a mistake to ignore the costs or write them off as negligible when they clearly represent a major investment in many levels of society.

Getting What We Pay For

What do all of us get for this investment? It’s difficult to say, exactly. Most people are eager to point out that getting an education is an important part of becoming a useful member of society. Do the costs really need to be this high to achieve that, though? And does the educational system actually deliver on its promise of creating successful young adults?

After looking into the costs of educating a person and comparing it to the actual value of going to school, I came to the conclusion that no, we aren’t getting a fair return on our collective investment.

We previously showed that universities charge high tuition because they can, not because those fees are necessary to provide an education. Similar sentiments are also true with pre-university schooling. There’s a lot of bloat and inefficiency associated with education.

There are clear alternatives to spending this much on a system that’s failing its students. Universal Owl is working to build one such alternative that aims to teach useful meta-skills young people can use to improve all areas of their lives.

Many other organisations, from not-for-profit foundations to private business, are also offering alternatives to the university education system. Given the obvious issues with cost mentioned above, it can only be a matter of time before more models that challenge the status quo appear.

The most important lesson we can learn right now is that free schooling is anything but free. Like anything with a price tag attached to it, intelligent young people should question the value being provided, and take a good look at any alternatives there may be.

John Alexander Adam writes for Universal Owl on topics relating to finance. An entrepreneur, he has one successful exit behind him. John has almost 10 years of experience as a writer and editor on consumer finance, investment and tech topics.

He currently writes and consults while studying for his purple belt in SEO and conversion science. In his spare time, he enthusiastically pursues hobbies he’s not very good at, such as football, squash and raising a small child.


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