A young Latina woman in a graduation cap and gown smiles with her mother.

College Degrees Yield Lifetime Benefits for Disadvantaged Students

Those who grew up as the least likely to graduate see the greatest returns, including less poverty, more time married, and greater civic engagement, new book finds

The value of a college education is increasingly debated. But who goes to college and attains degrees—and the social inequalities embedded in those pathways—are often obscured in the debate and not well understood. In her new book, Overcoming the Odds: The Benefits of Completing College for Unlikely Graduates, Jennie E. Brand (UCLA) provides new evidence on the benefits of a college degree, especially for the unlikeliest graduates.1

Key Findings:

  • Those who had early-life disadvantages and a low likelihood of graduating college, but completed a degree, saw the greatest returns—including higher wages, more continuous long-term employment, less poverty, more time married, and less time as single parents—than peers with similar backgrounds.
  • A college degree does not necessarily equalize wages. Those with early-life advantages who did not graduate from college may still outearn those who graduated. But among those with more disadvantaged backgrounds, having a college degree provides a buffer against unemployment, low-wage work, and poverty when compared with peers who started life similarly and did not graduate from college.
  • There are societal advantages to getting a college degree—namely reduced lifetime use of social assistance programs and greater civic engagement—particularly among those who were the unlikeliest to graduate from college.

Is a College Degree Worth It?

Recently, popular discourse has questioned the value of a college education. Such arguments are often based on simplistic analyses that downplay the benefits that students from disadvantaged backgrounds receive from a four-year college degree. The discourse often does not draw on statistical approaches to consider how college degrees benefit students of diverse backgrounds not only in the short-term, but over a lifetime.

“The debate about the value of a college education is not always grounded in the best evidence,” explains Brand. “Through advanced analytic techniques, we can better understand the lifetime benefits that college graduates realize from their education. The data overwhelmingly support degree attainment, especially for those who do so against the odds.”

Brand analyzes thousands of pairs of individuals who shared similar childhood backgrounds but were differentiated by a single key factor—one graduated from college, and one did not. The analytic technique, called propensity score matching, allows Brand to describe the benefits that college graduates from different backgrounds receive from their degrees by using peers as their reference point.

Using the breadth and depth of two cohorts of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Brand observes people from their youth to their early 50s (NLSY79) and, for the younger group, to their late 30s (NLSY97). Her study shows that most college graduates realize lifetime advantages across a host of socioeconomic and other outcomes. But those who benefitted most from a college degree across a wide range of outcomes were from backgrounds that made them least likely to graduate.

To match her pairs in the study, Brand uses known background factors that make someone more or less likely to graduate from college, including parents’ educational attainment, family income, two-parent households, college preparatory coursework, school characteristics, and test scores—as well as other demographic factors like race, ethnicity, sex, and geography. Analytic pairs in both cohorts (NLSY79 and NLSY97) formed the basis of the study.

Researchers have long studied the pathways to college for disadvantaged students who persist in attaining degrees. Attending school is often a significant hurdle for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, whether because they lack family- and school-level resources that facilitate college preparation and guidance or perceive the financial costs to be too high.

Even academically talented low-income students undermatch to colleges—if they attend at all—by choosing less selective schools more consistent with similar-income peers than similarly academically qualified ones.2 Despite selective colleges offering robust financial aid, lower-income students may perceive the economic and social cost of attendance to be too high.

Persistence—or staying in college—is another challenge. Even when students from disadvantaged backgrounds enter elite colleges, Anthony Jack finds that a lack of support and inclusion at such institutions can work against their persistence in college.3

Brand is not seeking to answer questions about access or persistence, but rather looks at those who finished degrees and how they benefit in the long term. By anchoring the analysis in paired individuals with common backgrounds, Brand demonstrates the power of a college degree regardless of a person’s starting point. This avoids the limitations of other studies that lack a robust counterfactual. In other words, Brand seeks to “consider what these students’ lives would look like in the absence of college and consider outcomes throughout their lives.”

The Unlikeliest College Graduates See the Highest Relative Returns

In an unequal society, not everyone attends college, and among those who do, their backgrounds may be drastically different. For lower-income, first-generation students who may have had high test scores but lacked guidance or rigorous coursework in high school, attending college and completing a four-year degree can be challenging. But the returns for such students were overwhelmingly high relative to peers of similar backgrounds who did not graduate from college.

College graduates who had early-life disadvantages and a low likelihood of getting a college degree saw the greatest returns—including higher wages, more continuous long-term employment, less poverty, more time married, and less time as single parents—than peers with similar backgrounds.

A College Degree Does Not Equalize Wages, but It Does Give a Lifetime Earnings Advantage

Those with early-life advantages who did not graduate from college may still outearn those who graduated. Even without a college degree, those with more privileged backgrounds can rely on family resources and social connections for long-term socioeconomic success.

But among those with more disadvantaged backgrounds, having a college degree yields higher lifetime earnings and provides a buffer against poverty. For example, for graduates who were least likely to complete college, there was a 32- and 19-percentage point reduction in lifetime poverty relative to their same-background peers who did not get a degree (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Graduates Who Were Least Likely to Finish College See Largest Reduction in Poverty

Percentage-point effects of college on reducing lifetime poverty rates among college graduates, by likelihood of completing college

Source: Brand’s calculations using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics National Longitudinal Surveys.

Note: All are significant at the p0.001 level (two-tailed tests).


The Benefits of Graduation Go Beyond the Graduate

Looking at a broad set of measures, Brand shows that college degrees result in societal benefits that extend far beyond an individual’s higher lifetime wages. These include a reduced use of social benefits over a lifetime, and greater civic engagement, whether through voting, volunteering, or attitudes about government.

Policies should be oriented toward helping the unlikeliest young people attain college degrees, and Brand offers actionable solutions:

  • A broad messaging campaign should convey the importance of a college degree for unlikely graduates to promote the tremendous socioeconomic benefits for this group.
  • Educational outreach, recruitment, and retention efforts should target students with a low likelihood of completing a college degree. This could include being more upfront about costs and the return on their investment, as well as changing recruitment and retention policies to focus on inclusion.
  • Expanding public investments in colleges and universities would permit greater access to the unlikeliest graduates and would decrease costs, creating more inclusive institutions that restore the promise of promoting upward mobility for all who attend.

“We should view college degree attainment as a collective good, as well as an individual goal,” Brand said. “Investing resources to help disadvantaged young people complete a college degree will promote a more equal society.”

About the Author

Jennie E. Brand is professor of sociology and statistics and data science, and co-director of the Center for Social Statistics, all at the University of California, Los Angeles.



  1. Jennie E. Brand, Overcoming the Odds: The Benefits of Completing College for Unlikely Graduates (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2023).
  2. Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery, The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (Spring); Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, “What High-Achieving Low-Income Students Know About College,American Economics Review 105, no. 5 (2015): 514-7.
  3.  Anthony Jack, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).