Even as the cost of college continues to rise, with student debt levels climbing along with it, the long-term financial benefits of a four-year college degree remain indisputable. Adults who have attained at least a bachelor’s degree have better economic outcomes, on average, than adults who have not completed college. They tend to earn more and accumulate more wealth.
But the economic benefits are not equally felt among college graduates. A new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Federal Reserve Board finds that first-generation college graduates are not on equal footing with their peers who have college-educated parents. Among household heads who have at least a bachelor’s degree, those who have a parent with a bachelor’s degree or more education have substantially higher incomes and more wealth than those who are the first generation in their family to graduate from college.
Adults who have at least one college-educated parent are far more likely to complete college compared with adults with less-educated parents. Some 70% of adults ages 22 to 59 with at least one parent who has a bachelor’s degree or more education have completed a bachelor’s degree themselves. Only 26% of their peers who do not have a college-educated parent have a bachelor’s degree.
Scholars and higher education administrators have focused on the many challenges facing students whose parents have never attended college.1 Enrolling in U.S. higher education is a complicated multistep process that includes completing college prep coursework in high school and navigating the admissions and financial aid process. Whether labelled “college knowledge” or “cultural capital,” students whose parents have their own experience and success in how to go to college have greater access to postsecondary education. Once on campus, students whose parents have not attended college are less likely to complete a degree.