Who Gains the Most From a College Education?

A new study finds that the students who are least likely to go to college (based on family background, abilities, and friend group) are the ones with the most to gain from a degree. Jennie E. Brand and Yu Xie find that the unlikeliest male college graduates earned 30% more over their lifetimes than comparable men who earned only a high school degree. In contrast, male college graduates most likely to go to college earned only 10% more than their non-college-educated counterparts. Brand and Xie observed a similar trend for women. The authors believe that the tough labor market faced by non-college-educated, disadvantaged students partly explains the results, but they point to an additional factor: economic motivation. “For students from disadvantaged groups, college is a novelty that demands economic justification,” Brand said. “By contrast, for students from advantaged backgrounds, college is a culturally expected norm. Economic gain is less of a motivation.”[%comments]


Um, privilege anyone? A college degree is not less beneficial to upper-income students because it's a cultural norm; it's because they already have the advantages that would otherwise come with a degree built in. Absent a degree, lower-income students likely will never get the opportunities they need to progress to the levels discussed. On the opposite end, upper-income students can probably not even go to college and still have ample opportunities because of family connections and more.


Clearly, the colleges gain the most from a college education.


There are some other things that could be investigated to corroborate this. For one, I'd expect the lower-income students to be more likely to be involved in work related to their college degree 5, 10, 15 years after graduation. I'd also expect the lower-income students to finish faster (if it costs you more, you're more likely to work hard and finish in 3.5 years, rather than a rich kid who takes 5-6 years to graduate). And I'd expect low-income students to be more interested in fields that lead to better-paying jobs (technology/business vs. arts/humanities).

typewriter heather

If it is harder to go to college, then only the smart, gifted, and driven ones will go.

If it is easy to go to college, then the lazy ones go.

So, in a sense, it could have little to do with their upbringing and everything to do with what sort of people they are.

DR. Ramesh Salian

rural students of developing economy benefit more from the college education. urban people benefit less from the college education. Apart from gaining good employment a rural student mind to learn more about the various avenues of world through colege education. I


We could actually draw a "Bell" curve out of this... the self made multi-billion or even multi millionares usually don't have a collage degree or if they went they usually are not the toppers in their collage. Those people have made it through practical experience which most collages don't teach as our Professor are always shuffing loads of books on us.


I'd be curious to know if there's any difference in earnings between college graduates depending on their background. I tried to read the paper but it wasn't obvious from the charts (read: I'm too lazy to dig :).

In major European cities the cost of housing is huge relative to starting salaries for college graduates, and I've noticed that many graduates from advantaged backgrounds don't even try to buy and rely on their families instead. This means they can have the same lifestyle with a lower salary and thus they don't need compete for the highest paying jobs.

Of course there's also the opposite effect that students from advantaged backgrounds are more likely to have connections helping them get high-paying jobs.


typewriter heather has a point, statistically speaking.
if these stats use averages and regressions to come to the conclusions then selection is the issue. It is harder for the disadvantaged groups to go to college so only the smartest and hardest working go. These same traits then translate into higher returns in the labor market. The privleged kids are a less selected (more varied) group, including some less smart and less motivated kids. So, overall the average return of the group is dragged down by these. If both faced the same difficulties then the selection factor might not be so high and they would have similar returns. This is basic selection as a confounding variable stuff, i thought you guys were economists!

Matthew R.

I noticed many of my high school peers didn't so much go to college as they did attend the thirteenth grade. That is, they just went along with the flow, without any rationale for why to attend college. It was just the thing everyone did.

It makes perfect sense that students from backgrounds in which economically and socially college attendance is not routine would have a greater sense of focus. The first generation of college attenders probably aren't majoring in Medieval Folklore or Feminist Theory, but majors with direct relationships to professional employment (e.g., nursing, accounting).


Normally don't do this type of thing, but I just read this book and it was fantastic. Its called "You Have A College Degree, Now What?" and I now feel as if I'm in the right frame of mind for success to take place. I'm graduating from college in May and thanks to this book I now feel prepared. Here's where I found it at. http://www.amazon.com/You-Have-College-Degree-What/dp/0578044048/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270658049&sr=1-1

Megan Mahon

To say that "economic gain is less of a motivation" for those who are well off seems to be a sweeping generalization. I personally believe that those who are already at a financial "advantage" receive tremendous pressures from their family, friends and society to keep up their social status.

It does not surprise me that those "disadvantaged" made greater financial strides after college than those who are "advantaged." However, I think this drastic increase in salary is because of personality and work ethic. It cannot be just about motivation to succeed financially because everyone wants to live a "comfortable" lifestyle.


This is true for MBAs too. My family cannot help me pay for my top 10 MBA education. So I am driven to extract as much value as possible, because it's risky for me to tack this onto my undergraduate debt. My well-off peers, by contrast, have fun and enjoy this experience much more than I do.


Ahhhhh..... you've got to love an ideological platform. Who's to say that economic achievement is even something to aspire to? Yes, yes,.... save your ideologically conditioned rejoinders of "communist" or "hippie" for your next shopping trip. Material wealth and economic "success" don't make for a happier life. (Yes, I realize that you've internalized the idea that a large plasma television will make you happy. Pretend I didn't say anything.)