Chicago Tribune business correspondent Gail Marks Jarvis looks at research into the college earnings premium.  It transpires that the premium is greater for graduates of more highly regarded institutions, and for graduates who came from more prosperous families.
Immediately after college, the pay the low-income grads received was about a third lower than graduates who had come from families with more money. But by the time people reached midcareer, the advantage of a college education slipped. In their 40s, the college graduates from low-income backgrounds were making only half of what graduates from nonpoor households were earning.

By their late 50s, earnings for college graduates who grew up poor decreased substantially. Their earnings fell to the same level as at the start of their careers, the researchers report. The graduates who had been raised by higher-income families experienced some decline late in their careers, but a much smaller decline.

The researchers have not yet identified causes for the vast difference in pay and are continuing to dig through data.
There are always opportunities for future research. Ms Jarvis offers provisional hypotheses.
Students from low-income backgrounds tend to choose lower-quality colleges. Studies show that the quality of a college — not just a degree — matters. More selective colleges may provide a broader network for students, giving them advice on how to advance and introductions to people who can help them.

In fact, in one study, economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale found that attending elite colleges was not significant in outcomes for affluent students but helped low-income students considerably. Krueger noted that people from more affluent backgrounds have networks through their families and other contacts that can help them advance. Low-income students, without built-in networks, can gain access to influential networks through highly selective colleges.

[Upjohn researcher Brad] Hershbein said low-income students that would qualify for more selective colleges often don't apply to those colleges because they have not had contact with them.

Growing up in low-income communities, the students haven't seen their friends going anywhere but state college nearby, he said. And selective colleges also "are not reaching out to low-income students."
I've long been of the view that it doesn't matter much whether any real learning takes place in the hundred or so institutions claiming to be in the top twenty, as long as there is a critical mass of motivated and in many cases well-connected students to emerge as the matriculants' social network at graduation and beyond.

The challenge for the regional comprehensives, the land grants, and the mid-majors is to cultivate the same sort of motivation and connection among students in order that the critical mass can eventually emerge.  A pedagogical commitment to access-assessment-remediation-retention doesn't strike me as useful.  The sub-prime party school model is a loser.  An institutional commitment to a tuition break for attending football games, likewise.

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