The American Dream — that anyone can achieve success through hard work, grit and determination — has always had a complicated relationship with the American Reality. Children born at the bottom of the income distribution are more likely than not to stay there. If you’re a person of color or your parents aren’t married, your odds of rising up are even worse.
Policymakers on the left and right often tout education as the bridge to help poor kids make their way up the income ladder — people with more education make more money. But striking new research from the Brookings Institution shows that simply sending more kids to college won’t fix income inequality: As it turns out, a college degree is worth a lot less, earnings-wise, to poor kids than to rich ones.
Brookings’s Brad Hershbein analyzed data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a massive, nationally representative study that’s tracked the economic progress of 18,000 individuals in 5,000 families since 1968. Because the study tracks the same families over close to 50 years, researchers can see things like how the family environment a person grows up in affects their earnings decades later.
Hershbein defines poor students as those from families who make less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level — the threshold for qualifying for the federal free and reduced lunch program. He found that, as you’d expect, a college degree does make a difference in poor students’ future earnings — poor kids who went to college earned, on average, 91 percent more money over their careers than poor kids who only got a high school degree.
But the earnings bump for middle- and upper-class kids was much larger. In that group, kids who got a bachelor’s degree earned 162 percent more than their peers who only earned a high school degree.
Not only that, but the earnings gap between poor and rich college-educated kids is huge, and it grows over the course of a career. Right after college, poor kids earn about two-thirds as much as rich kids, on average. But by mid-career, the typical college grad from a rich family is earning close to $100,000, while the grad from a poor family is making around $50,000.
There are probably a lot of factors at play here. Hershbein and his colleagues are investigating everything “from family resources during childhood and the place where one grew up, to the colleges that low-income students attend” in search of the driving factors.
In other words, a college education is not necessarily the great equalizer that many policymakers hope. This doesn’t mean that talented poor kids shouldn’t aim for a four-year degree — after all, that degree would nearly double their lifetime earnings relative to peers who didn’t go to college.
But for millions of poor kids, getting into college isn’t the hard part — it’s staying in and graduating that’s a challenge. For a poor student, dropping out of college with a boatload of student loan debt can be a worse proposition than simply not going at all.
At any rate, Hershbein’s research suggests our society isn’t as meritocratic as it’s cracked up to be.
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