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Unequal Benefits

Whether or not your parents have a college degree affects how likely you are to go to college and how likely you are to finish. But even after graduation, divides remain.

First-generation college graduates have lower incomes and less wealth, on average, than graduates who have at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Federal Reserve Board.

“Adults who have attained at least a bachelor’s degree have better economic outcomes, on average, than adults who have not completed college,” the report’s author, Richard Fry, wrote. “But the economic benefits are not equally felt among college graduates.”

Some highlights of the Pew findings:

  • The median income for households headed by someone who’s earned a bachelor’s degree but whose parents have not is $99,600. That compares with $135,800 for households headed by a college graduate with a college-educated parent. 
  • The median wealth of households headed by a first-generation college graduate is $152,000 compared with $244,500 for households headed by a second-generation college graduate. (Wealth is the value of all the assets owned by the household — cars, homes, financial assets, businesses, etc. — minus outstanding debts owed by the household.)

The lower household income of first-generation graduates hampers wealth accumulation, making it harder to save. The gap, Pew says, also reflects differences in how the two groups pay for college, with first-generation students more likely to take on education debt and to have higher outstanding balances.

“Wealth is valuable because it can be used to tide the household over if its income is interrupted (due to layoff, illness, or variable earnings) as well as fund retirement,” the Pew report says.

And wealth has bearing on the next generation, too: It can also be used to pay for a child’s college expenses.

Scarcity and Guilt

Read more about finances and first-generation college students in the most-recent issue of our First Gen newsletter. There, Zipporah Osei wrote about the scarcity mindset and feelings of guilt that plague so many first-generation graduates. 

“Getting the degree had opened a new financial door to me that I was both incredibly grateful for and intensely anxious about,” Zipporah wrote. She’s a first-generation graduate, earning her degree last year from Northeastern University.

“I was earning a higher salary in my first year out of school than my mother had in the twenty years that she’d been in this country, but now there was so much more to contend with and much of it I barely understood. Building up savings. Credit. Paying back loans. Investing.”

In the newsletter, she talks with Maria Melchor, a paralegal case handler and personal finance coach in New York City who’s also a first-generation Mexican immigrant and college graduate. She started her Instagram, First Gen Living, to create space in the financial literacy community for people like her.

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— Sara Hebel

The Return of Graduation

When in-person graduation returned to El Paso, it was a big deal for the entire community. It was one of the first large events to come back in a region that was hard hit by covid earlier this year. And, for the occasion, some parents were allowed to cross the border from Ciudad Juárez — a prominent departure from U.S. and Mexican policies that have closed crossings to all but essential travel since March of last year.

“There was an energized momentum that you could feel from the graduates and their families that I believe is unique to this city,” says Jewél Jackson, who covered the ceremonies this month for our partner newsroom El Paso Matters. “With UTEP being a Hispanic-serving institution, having a large population of first-generation students, and Mexican parents being able to cross the border to see their students graduate, there was a lot to celebrate on top of this all occurring during a pandemic.”

Being able to hold commencement again was extremely important, especially for the university’s first-generation college students, Beto Lopez, the assistant vice president for the office of university relations at UTEP, told Jewél. 

“It’s not just the graduate, it’s not just the immediate family, it’s the whole neighborhood that celebrates when we have a first-generation graduate.”

Zipporah Osei, who graduated from Northeastern University via Zoom in 2020, says she still feels the loss of her own opportunity to celebrate. Many of her fellow first-generation graduates in last year’s class feel the same way, she says, and seem especially sad to not have been able to share the moment with their families. 

“Now their memory of college will always include the fact that they managed to make it through college, despite the hurdles, and were still met with disappointment at the end of it,” Zipporah says. “This time has shown people that the commencement really is an important part of the college experience.”

Lessons from Tennessee

A year ago Jason Gonzales started working with us at our partner Chalkbeat Colorado. Before that, he was a reporter at the Tennessean, where he covered the nation’s first statewide free college program. With free college back in the news, Jason took the opportunity to catch up with one of the architects of Tennessee Promise for his new monthly newsletter at Chalkbeat.

The program has pushed more of the state’s students into the college system, Jason reports. But too many students of color and those from low-income backgrounds still aren’t graduating.

Walking into a crowded high-school cafeteria and telling students that two-year college is free changes lives, tnAchieves Executive Director Chrissy DeAlejandro told Jason. But students need help not just navigating the enrollment process but also in balancing work, home life, and school once they get there.

“Promise provided that shock, but once we landed there, we asked, what we are doing differently to support these students?” DeAlejandro said. “I think that’s the lesson that we’re continuing to learn and evaluate.”

+ Sign up here to get Jason’s newsletter, Beyond High School, which focuses on college-going in Colorado.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

In Mississippi: Applying for financial aid is hard. A new rule could make it harder.

In Colorado: Gov. Jared Polis just signed Colorado’s budget. Here’s what it does for education.

In latitude(s): How the public sees international students

In The Job: A big bet on short-term academic programs

In Northeast Ohio: Cuyahoga Community College tapped for health care pipeline project


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Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus