When discussions take place about first-generation college students, often the focus is on how disadvantaged they are in comparison to their peers whose parents went to college.
Research we recently conducted shows that first-generation college students experience another form of disadvantage that lasts long after they graduate – and that is: how much they earn.
We are sociologists who focus on topics of career progression and class inequality.
Using data from the federal Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study for 1992-93 graduates, we found that first-generation college students earn substantially less 10 years after graduation than college graduates whose parents went to college. This is the most recent data available that follows young people for 10 years after they graduate – a time when young adults’ incomes typically become more stable.
Substantial wage gaps
Our research found that first-generation men and women go on to earn, respectively, 11 percent and 9 percent less per year.
Even when we compare students who have the same characteristics and experiences – such as socio-demographic background, having children or not, the type of institution they attended, major and grade-point average – first-generation men and women still earn, respectively, 6 percent and 3 percent less than men and women college graduates whose parents went to college. This second comparison rules out the possibility that differences observed in the first comparison are due to differences in the individual attributes of the two groups.
The wage gaps are uneven across universities and majors. Colleges and universities that are somewhat selective show the largest wage advantage for graduates whose parents went to college. More elite and less selective schools report smaller gaps.
When it came to majors most associated with subjective criteria, such as arts and humanities, we found a wage gap among men as high as 17 percent. In other words, men who are first-generation and study arts and humanities don’t earn as much as their peers who study the same thing and whose parents went to college. However, for men with STEM, vocational and education majors, the gap is between 3 and 4 percent and not significant.
So, what drives wage differences between first-generation college graduates and graduates whose parents went to college? It is mostly labor market factors. First-generation graduates more often landed in jobs in the public and not-for-profit sectors, which tend to pay less than jobs in the private and for-profit sector. They were also less likely to work in urban areas, where wages are higher.
It is also interesting what won’t do much to change the wage gap between first-generation college graduates and their peers whose parents went to college: getting first-generation students to attend more elite colleges. Our research shows that elite college attendance would only lower the wage gap between first-generation college graduates and their peers among men, and even then only about 8 percent.
Our findings suggest that well-intentioned efforts to push first-generation students to attend the most prestigious colleges or to pursue higher-paying majors may not do much to change the wage gap that we discovered. First-generation students are already well-represented in several
Taking different jobs
The issue is first-generation college students are not getting the same kind of jobs as their peers whose parents went to college.
Compared to their peers whose parents got a college degree, first-generation men are 4 percent less likely to be in the for profit sector and 3 percent more likely to be in state and local government. First-generation men are 4 percent more likely to be in clerical jobs and 3 percent more likely be in blue-collar jobs. They are 7 percent less likely to be in STEM professions.
This could be because first-generation college graduates are not familiar with the same types of jobs or don’t have the same kinds of networks as their peers whose parents went to college. It could also arise from where the jobs are located – first-generation graduates may live in different areas where there are fewer or worse job opportunities. They may also have a lower ability to relocate.
The difference in the kinds of jobs that first-generation graduates get could also arise from how employers in each field hire. For instance, prior research has shown that that elite employers value elite attributes more than working class attributes. One example is putting sailing on a resume versus track and field – elite employers are more likely to hire someone who sails.