Enrichment Education

College degrees may no longer be the great equalizer: study

Story at a glance

  • A researcher at Portland State University conducted a study to measure how much a student’s family background limits the power of higher education.
  • He found that college graduates from lower-income families took on larger amounts of student loan debt.
  • Even if the federal government implemented universal student loan forgiveness, that won’t fix the rising cost of college tuition, or the amount of debt future students take on.

The cost of college has been steadily rising for decades, creating an increasing burden for students taking on insurmountable levels of loan debt. Now one researcher believes that’s influencing how valuable college degrees can be to young adults. 

In a study published January in SAGE journals, a researcher from Portland State University used data from the National Survey of College Graduates and found that graduates from lower-income families were more likely to hold a large amount of student loan debt compared to classmates who came from higher-income families. 

Byeongdon “Don” Oh, a sociology postdoctoral fellow at Portland State, conducted the study and argued that even if the federal government granted universal student debt forgiveness, that would only alleviate temporary financial burdens because the cost of college tuition continues to grow and will create similar high debt situations for future generations. 

“Even though we may have one-time student loan forgiveness, new generations will still go to college and considering rising college tuition, they’ll have to borrow more than previous generations and the inequalities will be reproduced over and over again,” said Oh, in a statement.  

“The fundamental solution would be to provide more accessible financial aid for college students from lower-income families.” 


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Though Oh agreed that higher education can increase upward mobility for children from lower-income families, he argued that their life chances will remain relatively restricted if the student loan debt they hold exceeds that of their peers from higher-income families after graduation. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the prices for undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board at public institutions rose 28 percent between 2008 to 2009 and 2018 to 2019. Prices at private nonprofit institutions rose 19 percent, after adjusting for inflation, during the same time period. 

NCES calculated that in the 2018 to 2019 academic year it cost $18,383 to attend public colleges and $47,419 to attend private nonprofit colleges.  

At the same time, NCES estimates that 43 percent of all first-time, degree/certificate seeking undergraduate students were awarded loan aid in 2018 to 2019, a 7 percent decrease from 2010 to 2011. Among four-year colleges, the largest decrease in the percentage of students who were awarded loans was at private for-profit colleges at 70 percent in 2018 to 2019, a 13-percentage point drop from 2010 to 2011. 

Oh’s study argues that there’s increasing evidence that universal student loan forgiveness would benefit disadvantaged student groups as the same amount of debt could be more burdensome for college graduates from lower-income families. 

Beyond parents’ financial status, race also appears to play a factor in student loan debt, as CNBC’s “Invest in You” national poll found 24 percent of Black adults said they have federal student loan debt, compared to only 14 percent of whites, 15 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of Asians.   

Nearly all people with student loans, 81 percent of CNBC’s poll respondents, said they’ve had to delay key life milestones, like saving for retirement or buying a home, to pay off their loan debt.   

Notably, 54 percent of adults polled said student loans are not worth it to take on debt. 

Though President Biden extended the moratorium on student loan repayments throughout the coronavirus pandemic, he’s remained reluctant to commit to a full-on loan forgiveness program. That’s despite calls from members of Congress to cancel it through executive action. Proponents of the move say it could be the single most effective executive action available to provide massive consumer-driven stimulus. 


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