Last week, we noted an immediate consequence. Because many high-income students are paying list price at the state flagship universities, rather than the Ivies' prices, even with financial aid, the flagships are able to offer tuition breaks to students less well-endowed.
But it's what the matriculant does as a graduate that offers the ultimate consequence. Here, tuition breaks for all might still be helping people who would otherwise be well-off stay well off.
For people who grew up in families with income below 185 percent of the poverty line, the college wage premium—the additional lifetime earnings from a college degree—is 71 percent. For those earning above that threshold, the premium is much larger—136 percent. As the authors write, “The average college graduate from a low-income family earns as much at career peak as the average college graduate from a higher-income family at career beginning.”Put pithily, there is a smaller "bachelor's bump" in earnings for the poorer kids.
Plus, as is always the case with research, there are unanswered questions.
[Upjohn Institute researchers Brad] Hershbein and [Timothy] Bartik plan to further dive into the data more in the months ahead to determine why this gap exists, but they have a few theories, including that network effects, which are typically stronger for people from middle class or high-income families, play a larger role in life outcomes than previously imagined. A college degree is not enough for people from low-income families to make up for that advantage in connections. Further exacerbating this trend could be that people from middle class or high-income families often go to elite universities that offer access to high-paying careers, which may be unavailable for college grads from less prestigious schools.Your neighborhood probably matters, yes. Standards at the "less prestigious" schools might fail to equip matriculants with the proper human capital, yes.
None of this means that the individual decision to go to college is a bad idea. On the contrary, the college wage premium is significant, even for people from low-income households. But it does mean that college isn’t the solution to rising inequality.
That finding doesn’t just push back on [failed presidential aspirant Bernie] Sanders’ free college plan. It pushes back on much of the public policy world which has held for years, on the right, left and center, that education is a key to reducing income inequality.
At the same time, the youngsters with the bourgeois upbringing might go along with the boutique multiculturalists whilst at university, yet reclaim those conventions as adults. They'll prosper, and the cult of authenticity will claim the hindmost.