According to a recent Brookings Institution analysis, a decades long survey of 18,000 people and their descendants – A bachelor’s degree benefited students from poor families much less than students from wealthier backgrounds.

While, on average, most would agree that a properly focused bachelor’s degree can be a worthy investment.  Getting an bachelor’s degree helps open up more opportunities than only finishing high school.   But, this study, adds evidence that not all bachelor’s recipients see a similar earnings benefits.

“College graduates who came from families with an income that’s below 185% the federal poverty level earn 91% more on average over their careers than high school graduates from that group, the analysis found. Their counterparts from wealthier families saw a 162% earnings boost over their careers thanks to a bachelor’s degree.”

“If you grow up [in a household with a] low income and manage to get higher education, which few people manage to do, the potential for that to lift you solidly up into the middle-class and upper-middle class is more limited than we thought,” said Brad Hershbein, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment research in Kalamazoo, Mich. and the author of the analysis.



The Brookings Institution

Unfortunately the study did not point to the exact reason for this difference.

However, let me offer some of the reasons I think there could be difference.

  1. Wealthier students likely have more job contacts available to them.
  2. Low-income students have had fewer learning opportunities from the beginning and the learning opportunity disparity between the two groups continues to grow throughout the learning cycle.
  3. Low-income learners may be held back by their own limited expectations.
  4. Wealthier students can move to expensive cities for jobs because they have the economic support. (Both my kids moved to new cities for their jobs and it cost a lot to relocate them.  If we did not have the money their opportunities would have been greatly limited.)
  5. Systematic Racism inherent in the system could also reduce the opportunities for lower income learners.
  6. Family and community support may be a huge factor in this difference.

“Regardless of why, the fact that higher education tends to benefit those who are already at a disadvantage less than their wealthier, and, often times, white colleagues is troubling, particularly in an environment of high college costs and student debt. Policy makers and the general public have long considered a college degree to be an engine of economic mobility, which is why they’ve been focused on getting low-income students into college and graduated.

“That’s useful but it may not be enough,” Hershbein said. Instead, policy makers and experts will likely need to address a whole host of factors before a child reaches college and after he leaves to ensure that the benefits of higher education are being experienced equally.