There Are Kind of a Lot of Reasons Why Poor Kids’ Degrees are Worth Less

poor kids earn less

Hooray! Debt!

New numbers from the Brookings Institute demonstrate something that a lot of first generation college students already know: Your degree, despite being printed on the same paper and costing every bit as much (actually, if you took out loans, it could be much more expensive by the time you’re done paying it off) as that of all the students in your class, seems to be worth less than you’d thought it would be—and certainly less than your guidance counselor promised you.

Exactly how much less, though, is pretty startling. From Brookings:

College graduates from families with an income below 185 percent of the federal poverty level (the eligibility threshold for the federal assisted lunch program) earn 91 percent more over their careers than high school graduates from the same income group. By comparison, college graduates from families with incomes above 185 percent of the FPL earned 162 percent more over their careers (between the ages of 25 and 62) than those with just a high school diploma.

So while a bachelor’s degree will help you earn more than if you had no bachelor’s degree (at least until you’re in your 60s), if you grew up in an economically distressed household, you can expect it to be a much smaller bump than if your parents had means.

That result flies in the face of the popular notion that going to college is a one-way ticket out of poverty and into a better life…which again, is something that most students who grew up poor and went to college have already discovered. And it’s not for one single reason; instead, the modesty of the “bachelor bump” for students who come from poorer households can be explained in any number of ways.

In the Brookings blog post on the data, nonresident fellow Brad Hershbein posits several explanations, including “family resources during childhood and the place where one grew up, to the colleges that low-income students attend“—all of which are plausible and in fact likely to contribute to the earnings gap. However, those are just a handful of the many, many, many, many forces and systems and assumptions and realities which make digging out of poverty difficult, despite a degree.

This is why, though reducing the economic burden of debt would be a large step in reducing income inequality, free college (which we recently wrote in favor of!) will not—in fact, it cannot—by itself break the cycle of poverty. Because though the cost of tuition is certainly a barrier to entry, it’s not the only one—and reducing it doesn’t curb the obstacles upon entrance or exit. Until myriad other systemic and academic issues are addressed, poor kids may earn a little more if they get a degree, but they certainly won’t be delivered from poverty entirely simply by virtue of obtaining it. 

It literally begins at childhood and continues through the maze of secondary school, in and out of college, past the burden of student debt, and then onward into the job market.

Let’s start at the beginning, when poor kids experience more stressful, traumatic situations than affluent children, which can lead to behavioral issues and learning delays. Let us also consider the well-documented impact of poverty on the education students receive in elementary, middle, and high schools, and the scholastic advantages that wealthier kids get from an early age. Before a child is even close to studying for the SATs—where they’re likely to under-perform—they’re set up for failure.

Now, assume a child from a poor household graduates from high school—which is statistically less likely than if they were wealthy—and goes to college. They are more likely than wealthier kids to have parents who did not go to college, which present a host of social and economic barriers which their peers don’t have to deal with. First-generation college and poor college students are more likely to self-select mediocre colleges or simply not get accepted to better schools due to their background, often have to work during school, may still be supporting family back home, land typically have to take out more loans, which means they graduate with more debt (though even if that weren’t the case, investigations have found that colleges just saddle poor kids with more debt anyway.) That is, if they graduate at all, which again, they are less likely to do even if they’re smarter than rich kid sitting next to them.

But still, lots of poor students do graduate from college, obtaining that coveted degree and also a hefty loan tab which they’ll have to pay back. The specter of that debt often drives middle-income kids back in with their parents (you’ve heard of boomerang kids, I assume), but for poorer students, moving back home often isn’t an option, or it means moving back to an economically-depressed area where job prospects are limited. This is one of many reasons that just under half of low-wage workers also happen to have college degrees.

If the new college graduate, though, does manage to finagle their way into a situation where they can both make their loan payments and their rent in a city where they may be able to find a job, they’ll still miss out on key indicators of success that their wealthier peers may enjoy. Those include but aren’t limited to: Social and networking connections throughs parents or alumni organizations that can lead to more prestigious internships or jobs, the ability to take unpaid internships which may pay off down the road, the ability to take slightly lower-paying positions which may ladder up to something more lucrative, and not knowing what options are available to them.

In its initial report, Brookings doesn’t break down the “bachelor bump” by race, but it would be a mistake, not to factor in the role of racial income disparities when talking it; though class and income are, of course, important indicators, race is still a major division when it comes to test scores, graduation rates of both high school and college (though those gaps are closing slowly), unemployment even with a degree, and overall earnings. Today’s most lauded jobs—the ones with the highest earning power—are often those in tech, which statistically has a terrible reputation of hiring a diverse workforce. The truth is that people of color are still simply doing worse in the United States, even when they go to school.

Though college is still one of the better tools in breaking the cycle of poverty, it’s untrue to plainly state, without qualification, that going to school will unequivocally help poor kids earn more than their parents. If we are serious about closing the gap between the wealthy and the not-wealthy, the solutions we choose much start early, acutely and directly address systemic racial discrimination, and prioritize more than just college attendance and graduation.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a reporter in Seattle. Her writing about the economy and politics has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Salon, Fast Company, and elsewhere.