As recently as the 1970s, it barely made financial sense to go to college. In 1979, among full-time workers aged 25 to 32, the typical high school graduate earned 77% of what the median college graduate made.
“But starting in the 1980s, the education premium started to grow and hasn’t stopped,” writes New York Times Columnist David Brooks. “Today, money follows ideas.”
According to research by Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, the median American with a graduate degree is part of a family making $93,000 a year. The median person with a college degree is in a family making $75,000. The median person with a high-school degree is in a family making $42,000, and the average high school dropout is in a family making $28,000.
Needless to say, there are big financial rewards for attending and completing college.
Unfortunately, the college admissions process seems to favor higher income students at the expense of those in the middle and lower class.
Researchers Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose surveyed the top 146 U.S. colleges and found that only 3 percent of the students there came from families in the bottom economic quartile. Seventy-four percent of students came from families in the top quartile.
Not only do lower income students typically have fewer resources for applying, preparing, and paying for college, there is also a confluence of factors that may hinder their ability to weather the extreme pressures of college once they arrive. In many cases, they drop out.
According to New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat in an article in The Atlantic, a child born into a family making $90,000 has a 50 percent chance of graduation from college by age 24. A child born into a family making $70,000 has a one-in-four chance. A child born into a family making $45,000 has a one-in-ten chance. And a child born into a family making $30,000 has a one-in-seventeen chance.
One in seventeen.
So what does this mean for you? Well, wherever you land on this spectrum, I think it’s a good idea to reflect upon your situation. Now I fully realize that each person’s situation is complex, and these broad statements below won’t apply to everyone. But in general…
If you were born into the upper class, be thankful for your situation, stay humble, and work hard. Keep in mind that, while you may work extremely hard, many of your opportunities can be attributed to the financially secure upbringing you have had. As the perennial saying goes, don’t walk around like you hit a triple; you were born on third base.
For students in the middle class, if you work hard, you will have a solid chance of attending college, but you will likely need to incur burdensome student loans in order to graduate with a college degree. College financial aid packages are rarely enough, so it is an excellent idea to pursue scholarship opportunities.
As a lower income student, you will have to fight because the process is rigged against you in many ways. Find a mentor or counselor early on who can help you get on the right track to go to college and who will ensure that you stay on that track. Take advantage of free online resources and guides to help you through the process. And once you get to college, you will have to be mentally tough in order to ride out the stress and pressure. One often overlooked challenge that lower income students must face is the unplanned social cost of college. On a campus where the majority of students have more resources, many students may be unaware of other students’ financial limitations. While lower income students don’t get the same return on a college degree as their more financially secure peers, lower income college grads still earn significantly more than if they had not received a college degree.
The education system itself is not entirely to blame. As America has become an increasingly unequal society, our response has been to heap more and more expectations on the education system to single-handedly close the achievement gap. In his book, Twilight of the Elites, Chris Hayes explains, “We ask the education system to expiate the sins of the rest of the society and then condemn it as hopelessly broken when it doesn’t prove up to the task.” Despite great efforts by America’s public university system to combat inequality, cuts to education funding threaten its ability to do so.
So what should you do? Well, start thinking about college early on. Starting in freshman or sophomore year of high school, visit nearby schools to figure out what you like and what you don’t like. Decide what your dream schools are and use them as motivation. Think about which subjects you feel most engaged in and work to excel in those areas. You do your best work when you like what you’re doing. Once college applications come around, start writing your admissions essays as soon as possible and apply Early Decision or Early Action.
Whatever your aspirations may be—if you want to graduate from high school, college, or even graduate school—it’s all up to you. No one can motivate you if you aren’t motivated yourself. No matter what your current situation is, you need to take responsibility for getting yourself where you want to be.
Brooks, David. The Social Animal. New York City: Random House, 2011. 327. Print.
Brown, Sarah. “Bottom Line: How State Budget Cuts Affect Your Education.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Nov. 2016. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.
Hayes, Christopher L. Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. 1st ed. New York City: Crown, 2012. Print.
Hershbein, Brad. “A College Degree Is worth Less If You Are Raised Poor | Brookings Institution.” Brookings. The Brookings Institution, 28 July 2016. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.
Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, Creating an Opportunity Society (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2009), 127.
Rose, Stephen J. “3.” America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education. By Anthony P. Carnevale. Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity, and Selective College Admissions. New York City: Century Foundation, 2004. 106. Print.
Ross Douthat, “Does Meritocracy Work?” The Atlantic, November 2005.
“The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. Pew Research Center, 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.
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