Equity & Diversity

College Said to Enrich Disadvantaged Students Most

By Alyson Klein — April 01, 2010 4 min read
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The students who are least likely to attend postsecondary education are the very ones who stand to derive the greatest economic benefit from earning a college degree, according to a study scheduled for publication today in the American Sociological Review.

The study found that college graduates whose demographic and academic backgrounds suggested they’d be among those least likely to go to college—including black and Latino students, low-income students, and those whose parents did not attend postsecondary education—got the biggest bump in income from their diplomas.

Young people with more college-bound characteristics, including coming from more advantaged, educated families, did not get the same financial boost from their degrees, according to the study’s authors, Jennie E. Brand, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Yu Xie, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.

The findings fly in the face of the perception, held by some economists, that the students who are most likely to attend college are the ones who will stand to benefit the most from postsecondary education, the authors wrote.

But that theory, which assumes that students carefully weigh the benefits and costs of earning degrees before deciding whether to pursue higher education, doesn’t properly account for the noneconomic factors that often influence college-going, such as cultural and social norms, the scholars say.

For students from more advantaged backgrounds, going to college is an expectation, and not necessarily seen as a means to better earning potential. But many students who grow up in less-privileged circumstances view college as the path to economic advancement.

“They have a stronger economic motivation,” said Ms. Brand, the lead author. “For them, it’s gotta count.”

The study comes as the Obama administration is making college readiness and access a centerpiece of its K-12 agenda. The administration’s recently released blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the federal education law whose current version is the No Child Left Behind Act—sets a goal of getting all students ready for college or careers by 2020.

From Teens to Adults

Ms. Brand and Mr. Xie examined findings from a survey of 12,686 individuals who were ages 14 to 22 when they were first interviewed in 1979. The subjects were followed through 2008. The initial survey included each subject’s grade-point average and achievement on a scholastic-aptitude test, administered in 11th grade.

Participants were also asked about their family’s socioeconomic, racial, and educational backgrounds, and whether their friends planned to pursue higher education.

As in similar studies, the researchers found that high school students were more likely to attend college if they came from more advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, had friends who planned to pursue college, had parents with some college education, or were high academic achievers.

They were less likely to attend college if they were African-American or Latino, came from low-income families, or had parents who had not been to college. And students with poor achievement records were also unlikely to attend.

Using the survey data, the researchers identified 16 predictors of college attendance, including parents’ educational attainment and friends’ college plans. They used those factors to determine just how likely each student was to pursue higher education.

On average, male college graduates from groups considered the least likely to go to college had earned 30 percent more over their lifetimes than students from similar circumstances who had not pursued education beyond high school. And females who also seemed unlikely to pursue college, but got degrees anyway, earned 35 percent more than similar students with just high school diplomas.

By contrast, male college graduates who were considered very likely to attend higher education didn’t get as big of an income bump. They earned just 10 percent more than similar students who only completed high school. And women who were considered very likely to go to college earned 20 percent more than those from similar backgrounds who only attained a high school education.

Ms. Brand and Mr. Xie cited a variety of factors in explaining why having a college degree gives a bigger advantage for students from less advantaged backgrounds.

For instance, high school graduates from poor, minority, and less-affluent families tend to face tough prospects in the job market. And individuals from groups who are more likely to attend college also tend to be more likely to tap parental and other social connections for employment, if they decide not to pursue a degree.

The findings didn’t surprise Greg Kienzl, the director of research and evaluation for the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit organization in Washington that works to increase college access and success.

He said that he has also found that the so-called “sheepskin” effect—the impact of a college diploma on future earnings—tends to be stronger with lower-income and minority groups, as well as women.

But he said that having a degree still does not put those students on a level playing field with people from more-privileged backgrounds. “At the end of the day, it’s still not enough to overtake” more-advantaged students with similar college attainment, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as College Said to Enrich Disadvantaged Students Most

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