A degree is a cut-price ticket to lifetime earnings of at least £400,000 more than non-graduates, according to new figures.
The Higher Education Careers Services Unit figures confirm, and may exceed, the government's oft-quoted estimate of £400,000 for the average lifetime graduate earnings premium. Ministers use the earnings premium to justify undergraduate tuition fees and loans for maintenance.
The CSU's graduate market trends report shows that 21 to 30-year-olds can expect to earn about 40 per cent more than non-graduates (an average of £22,302 a year compared with £15,948). Those aged 31-40 earn an average of 63 per cent more (£33,472 compared with £20,519). Those 41-50 earn an average of 71 per cent more (£34,958 compared with £20,400). In the 51-60 age group, the gap is thought to be at least as great as that in the preceding group.
The report shows that newly qualified graduates in management consultancy earn the most on average (£19,726) followed by those in IT industries (£18,835).
Employers were offering average salaries of about £19,000 to graduates in science and "any numerate discipline", "any computer-related subject" and those trained in electronic engineering.
Overall graduate job vacancies have dropped because of the US economic downturn, the end of the dotcom boom and foot-and-mouth disease's impact on tourism and agriculture. Average graduate starting salaries are almost the same as last year at £17,722.
Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, said: "The main problem is that whatever sums graduates are predicted to earn, they will remain a pipe dream for the thousands priced out of higher education."