College is no equalizer? Study finds student debt still holds low-income graduates back

PORTLAND, Ore. — Getting a college degree often opens up opportunities in the working world that lead to higher salaries and even better health. Although many view a college diploma as “the great equalizer” when it comes to financial and personal well-being, a new study finds the costs of that education keep holding lower-income families back.

A researcher from Portland State University explains that attending college can come with a heavy price tag that saddles many families with student debt for years. The rising price of tuition therefore limits the power higher education has to erase the socioeconomic gaps in society. Although both high-income and low-income families receive these bills and take out loans, study author and sociology postdoctoral fellow Byeongdon “Don” Oh found that high-income families are in better position to handle student loan debt and still prosper.

Oh’s study finds lower-income families are more likely to hold a large amount of student debt in adulthood in comparison to students from high-income families. The results held steady even after accounting for the size of their loans, their grades and degree, their job, and salary after college. Oh believes this disparity creates a negative “ripple effect” which burdens a graduate’s ability to invest, save money, own a home, and build wealth.

Student loan forgiveness is just a temporary fix

Although the study supports the idea of universal student debt forgiveness — which could remove the current burden on low-income families with kids in college — Oh says this proposal by the Biden administration is just a short-term fix on a long-term problem.

“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,” Oh says in a university release. “The fundamental solution would be to provide more accessible financial aid for college students from lower-income families.”

The researcher notes that there are two sides to the ongoing student debt argument. Opponents of college loan forgiveness say it mainly benefits already wealthy groups, not those who could use financial relief the most. On the other hand, advocates say loan forgiveness would do a lot for disadvantaged groups struggling to repay their student debt.

The new study sides with advocates for student loan forgiveness, especially during tough financial times like the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Oh explains that colleges are continuing to make getting a degree more expensive, meaning families have to borrow more to send their kids to school.

Previous studies show that earning a college degree has a connection to healthier brain aging and may help people live longer than their peers. Even a spouse’s college education shows an ability to improve someone’s well-being.

However, Oh concludes that the positive effects of earning a college degree, especially in the job market, greatly depends on how much debt that student carries into their future endeavors.

The study is published in the journal Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.