A new report has cast doubt on the perceived wisdom that getting a degree is a ticket to financial success.
Economists at BERL crunched the numbers, and found people who get an apprenticeship end up just as financially secure as their academic counterparts - and more of their earnings come sooner.
"What we observe is that under our assumptions, the net financial position of degree holders and apprentices at the end of their careers is almost exactly the same," the Modelling costs v benefits of apprenticeship v degree report reads.
BERL was tasked by the Industry Training Federation to see if going to university - and delaying entering the workforce, contributing to KiwiSaver and getting on the housing ladder - was worth it.
"This was motivated as a response to studies done by others based on census data that look at broad averages without controlling for any other effects, and often conclude that the 'best' career path is a degree - based on not much more than the average income of degree holders, compared to all others."
The economists compared degree-holders to those with apprenticeships and/or level 4, 5 and 6 qualifications, and those who leave school without any formal qualifications.
Assuming things like the cost of rent, housing, spending patterns, interest rates, KiwiSaver membership and more, they found people with bachelor's degrees aren't financially better off than people without qualifications until their mid-30s, and don't catch up to people with apprenticeships until their late 40s.
"We note that the apprentice in our model always ends up with the highest net financial position in the middle of their working careers," the report states.
"This is driven by them having paid off most of their mortgage and having no other debt. This implies that an apprentice career is lower risk."
BERL chief economist Ganesh Nana says the results surprised him, telling NZME he thought the graduates would catch up to everyone else much sooner. Instead it showed at age 40, apprentices were generally more financially secure.
Previous research suggesting graduates were at a significant advantage from the beginning appeared not to take into account their student debt.
Past Universities of New Zealand research suggested graduates earn $1.68 million more over their lifetimes than those without degrees.