The total return to higher education: Is there underinvestment for economic growth and development?

Walter W. McMahon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The total return to higher education is the rate of return based on earnings plus non-monetary private and social benefits beyond earnings that captures higher education's contribution to development. A theory of endogenous development is a new scholarly contribution where firm and household production with education externalities and the endogeneity of new ideas leads to an optimal rate of development. This rate is higher than in an economy without these externalities. Since measures of private non-market and social benefit externalities are positive, externalities contribute to higher per capita development. The total return is estimated to be considerably higher than the opportunity cost of funds and the return on physical capital, the first major evidence of serious underinvestment in higher education in the US for optimal development. Policy-relevant treatment effects and policy options with implications for optimal development and for improving the worsening condition of the dissatisfied middle class are considered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)90-111
Number of pages22
JournalQuarterly Review of Economics and Finance
StatePublished - Nov 2018


  • Education externalities
  • Education for development
  • Endogenous development
  • Growth
  • Human capital
  • Non-monetary higher education benefits
  • Social rates of return

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Finance
  • Economics and Econometrics


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