Since the onset of the pandemic three years ago, college enrollment has fallen by more than 1 million students. Fewer high school graduates are now going straight to college, and there is growing skepticism across the country about the long-term value of a college education.
As well-founded as concerns about the rising cost of college might be, however, the evidence suggests that a college degree is just as valuable as ever. Higher education remains a gateway to economic opportunity, creating pathways to first jobs, promotions, raises and careers.
To continue to be engines of social mobility for generations to come, colleges must find ways to attract an increasingly diverse population of learners and provide them with the resources they need to pursue their educations.
Those who attend college are significantly more likely to experience upward mobility than those who do not attend. With median earnings of $2.3 million over a lifetime, bachelor’s degree-holders earn 74 percent more than those with only a high school diploma. They account for 36 percent of total employment.
But a college degree doesn’t just change the life of the graduate. When a first-generation college student earns a degree, it’s the beginning of a sprawling domino effect that can transform entire communities. Ensuring that individuals have the support they need to make their way to and through higher education has an impact that spans generations.
Higher education remains a gateway to economic opportunity, creating pathways to first jobs, promotions, raises and careers.
In many ways, my own story is proof of the multigenerational benefits of a college education. When my father’s parents agreed to buy him a one-way plane ticket to the United States from India, they did so with the understanding that he would attend college. When he returned to India three years later to enter an arranged marriage with my mother, he was well on his way to a degree.
My mother had a very different experience with higher education. She already had a college degree from India, but she soon discovered that the credentials she had worked so hard to attain there were not as valuable in the U.S. labor market. So she went back to school, this time to an American community college, where she earned a degree in information technology.
That degree got her an entry-level job at a local company, where she worked for nearly 30 years.
My parents’ college journeys shaped my own in important ways. Knowing the sacrifices they made by leaving their families behind and navigating an unfamiliar system of education and employment instilled in me a deep appreciation of the promises and perils of higher education.
Their hard work also meant that I had access to even greater opportunities than they had.
My sister and I are both examples of the ripple effect of a college education on later generations. Research shows that children of college-educated parents are far more likely to pursue and complete an undergraduate degree than learners whose parents never attended college.
The same goes for older siblings, with a 2019 study finding that when an older brother or sister goes to college, it substantially increases the enrollment rate of their younger siblings. The study described an older sibling’s college journey as a “high-touch intervention” that provides inspiration and guidance.
Of course, being the first in a family to go to college is a daunting task. First-generation students face far too many barriers to their success. The transition can be a lonely and overwhelming experience. They lack institutional knowledge that students whose parents went to college rely on to guide them to and through school.
Not surprisingly, the graduation rate for first-generation students at open-admission schools, where the vast majority of these learners enroll, is just 21 percent. In contrast, the graduation rate for students who have at least one parent with a college degree is 44.1 percent.
Today, one-third of undergraduates — about five million students — are first-generation, and that number is going to increase in the coming years, meaning that the need to better serve these learners will only become more urgent.
The good news is that it is no longer a mystery which resources and interventions have the most impact on helping first-generation students and other nontraditional learners enroll in and graduate from college.
Supporting first-generation students requires a holistic approach that combines financial, academic and personal support to guide students to make the right decisions about their educations and ensure they have the resources to reach their goals.
These students often need academic advising, personalized student coaching, mentorship programs, intensive tutoring, career planning and financial assistance.
To combat rising income, housing and food insecurity, a growing number of institutions are providing “one-stop” services to connect students to community and public resources such as transportation assistance, child care centers, legal aid services and housing and other basic needs support.
In an environment where degree skepticism is on the rise and the value of a college education has become a politically polarizing question, it can become all too easy for us to focus on reasons why college might not be worth it. But the data — and our own lived experiences — tell us that college success translates into a positive impact not only in the short term but for generations yet to come.
Aneesh Sohoni is CEO of One Million Degrees in Chicago, a leading provider of wraparound services to community college students
This story about the benefits of a college education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.