Pew: Adults whose parents got degrees enjoy more success

The Research Center notes large gaps exist in completion, income and wealth for first-generation college attendees.
By: | May 19, 2021

Students whose parents hold a least a bachelor’s degree have a far better chance of completing college, earning higher incomes and attaining wealth than those whose parents did not, according to a new analysis released by the Pew Research Center.

The value of a college education notwithstanding, the Pew Center noted the unevenness in outcomes of adults who were the first to attend postsecondary institutions and those whose parents had matriculated and finished their studies.

For example, while 70% of second-generation adults who enrolled in college made it to completion – including 82% when both parents had graduated – only 26% of those enrolled from first-generation households earned degrees. The median wealth ($99,600 vs. $135,800) and the median income ($152,000 vs. $244,500) for the two groups varied substantially.

“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,” senior researcher Richard Fry wrote in the Pew Research Center analysis. “Once on campus, students whose parents have not attended college are less likely to complete a degree.”

What does that mean for the next wave of first-generation students both enrolled now and those coming through? Will those statistics change as more colleges and universities offer improved access and support systems, or will the status quo remain?

History might offer some indicators, according to the research from Pew, which culled data from the Survey of Household and Economic Decisionmaking (SHED) and the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) in its analysis. Its report highlighted several areas of concern:

Four-year vs. two-year enrollment. 85% of adults who enrolled in college and had parents attend a four-year institution similarly signed on at four-year institutions. For those whose parents did not go to college, that number was 61%.

Debt. Citing U.S. Department of Education data, Pew noted that first-generation adults were far more likely to report they had incurred student loan debt – and many still have it – while second-generation students took on less because of the wealth achieved by their parents. Building wealth becomes far less challenging for those not overwhelmed by debt. It could also explain why so many current high schools students, armed with information on the harm of incurring large amounts of student debt – are weighing postsecondary options as they advance.

Racial disparities. Though achievement gaps between the degree-bearing adults – those whose parents attended college and those who didn’t – largely mirrored those from the overall numbers, there were additional differences along racial lines. For example, White students completed their four-year studies 71% of the time, compared with Black (57%) and Hispanic (58%) students.

Type of college. Not surprisingly, given the wealth history of the second-generation graduate cohort, their children were able to attend private institutions far more easily (29%) than the first-generation group (17%). They also were able to attend more selective schools (51% to 23%), which in turn, helped them toward completion.

Income and wealth. Noted above are the disparities in earnings between adults with bachelor’s degrees whose parents completed college vs. those who didn’t ($135,800 vs. $99,600). The importance of a college education cannot be undersold, as Pew noted the difference between the earnings of households where one has a four-degree ($100,000) and households without ($65,200), even without factoring in the parent variable. The gaps become more apparent in terms of wealth: A household with a four-year graduate in it (regardless of their parents’ outcomes) has accumulated an average of more than $200,000, while a high school grad has $31,200.