Study: College might not be ‘The Great Equalizer’

Kiran Ramsey | Senior Design Editor

Income inequality, always a hot topic in higher education, has received a lot of attention lately because of two popular studies.

While some higher education administrators view college as “the great equalizer,” a new study suggests that’s not necessarily the case.

The study was recently published in the journal Social Forces and was written by professor Paul Attewell and doctoral candidate Dirk Witteveen at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

The study indicates a correlation between students’ family incomes and their post-graduation incomes. According to the study, students from wealthier families earn more after graduation than students who come from lower-income families.

Attewell and Witteveen utilized data from the Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study of 1993, which collected data about the futures of people who graduated with bachelor’s degrees that year. Using the 1993 graduates’ incomes earned 10 years after graduation — and controlling for college, major and academic performance — the pair found that the base salary was $57,000 per year.

Students who came from families with incomes in the bottom 10 percent earned approximately 12.9 percent less than this base, while students who came from the top 10 percent earned approximately 2.4 percent more.

Another recently published study found results which contradict these findings, however. Economists with the Equality of Opportunity Project conducted a similar study in which they gathered information from 30 million students who attended Title-IV accredited colleges in the United States between 1999 and 2013. The study found that students across the socioeconomic spectrum had similar chances of success after college.

Carl McPherson, a pre-doctoral research fellow with the Equality of Opportunity Project, said that “life outcomes, in terms of the income that they make, are pretty similar.”

“If you’re rich, you’re much more likely to go to a better school. But once you get to your school, it doesn’t matter who your parents were,” McPherson said.

Witteveen said in an email they were aware that other researchers had conducted studies on the role of family resources in the hiring process and had found significant impact of class backgrounds on the hiring process. Witteveen said they thought there was a hole in this research, however, in regards to the effects of one’s family’s standing on future earnings of graduates.

Social scientists have frequently pointed out that different kinds of social, cultural and economic factors can impact educational and labor market outcomes.

“We know some of these factors cast a long shadow over individuals’ lives in general, regardless of educational backgrounds,” Witteveen said.

Some findings of the study, Witteveen said, were surprising.

“American popular culture celebrates the ideal of upward mobility through educational attainment … researchers had found that a BA degree basically erases the influence of family background on income.” Witteveen said. “In that sense our finding is disappointing because it challenges our meritocratic ideal.”

The study also found that graduates from lower and lower-middle class backgrounds still find more lower-paying jobs than their more privileged classmates, even if they work in the same fields post-graduation. Witteveen said future research could focus on how class-related inequalities affect people on a more micro level, such as within a specific field or firm.

In regards to the contradicting study, Witteveen said the data used was intriguing because of the large sample size, but that it shouldn’t be misinterpreted.

“Despite the fact that there are many colleges that do display class equalization among their attendees and graduates, there is still considerable class-rooted inequality among college graduates nation-wide,” Witteveen said.


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