Multigenerational poverty hurts not only individuals and their families but also communities and regional economies.
Poverty spanning from one generation to the next creates deep barriers that hinder security and quality of life. According to the Michigan Commission on Community Action and Economic Opportunity, these barriers include:
- Learned Helplessness
- Lack of Training
- Non-Living Wages
- Disincentives in Assistance Programs
- Lack of Affordable Housing and Transportation
- Limited Access to Health Care
While these barriers create significant challenges, there is a way forward. Earning a college credential has been the only consistent method for lifting people from poverty and helping them break free from multigenerational barriers to forge a path to the middle class.
Here are three groups that can be radically transformed by earning a college credential:
Individuals with a post-secondary credential earn more than those without one. One study found that the annual earnings of Americans with bachelor’s degrees was, on average, $32,000 higher than high school graduates who never attended college. A college degree also lowered the incidence of poverty and increased job safety, and individuals were 2.2 times less likely to be unemployed. In contrast, one out of every 3.2 adults without a high school diploma was in poverty in 2012.
A college education is still a critical component of helping students achieve upward mobility. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, almost half of the students raised in the bottom quintile of the family income who didn’t earn a college degree are stuck there as adults, compared with only 10 percent who did earn a college degree. The same study found that having a college degree makes a student more than three times more likely to rise to the top of the family income ladder.
2. Their children
When an individual earns a college credential, they’re doing more than just brightening their own future. They’re providing the inspiration and initiative for their children to earn a degree as well. First generation students were twice as likely to drop out or fail to return for their second year as students whose parents had a bachelor’s degree.1 Conversely, another study found that higher levels of parental education led to higher levels of optimistic education aspirations or educational attainment in adolescence, and subsequently to higher educational attainment or more prestigious occupational status in adulthood.2
Completing education beyond high school is essential for helping children of first generation college students achieve economic and social mobility, according to the Lumina Foundation. With two-generation strategies, institutions can help expose children to the benefits of higher education at an early age. One such program at Alamo College in Texas promised recipients who completed their program of study a full two-year tuition scholarship for their children under 6 years old, according to a 2020 brief from Achieving the Dream. Since the program began in 1997, 281 parents achieved their educational goals, and 32 of their children went on to claim their scholarships a decade later.
The Aspen Institute explains that the most effective two-generation approaches include both child-parent elements (e.g., early childhood development programs) and parent-child elements (e.g., food and nutrition resources). The Aspen Institute has published a Two-Generation Playbook, describing core components of two-generation approaches, as well as highlighting the return on investment, including – on average – doubling a parent’s income.
3. The community, region, and nation
As a nation, the United States faces a growing need for skilled talent, meaning that there’s a greater demand for individuals with college degrees, certifications, and other college-level credentials. Since 2008, the national average of individuals earning post-secondary credentials has increased by 10 percentage points to 51.3 percent, according to the Lumina Foundation. However, that still falls short of the goal of 60 percent of Americans earning post secondary credentials by 2025.
According to a 2017 study from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, higher college-credential completion can have a significant and positive long-term impact on the economy, translating to faster GDP growth, lower unemployment rates, and greater median household income. Overall, earning college credentials can help individuals, families, and communities thrive far beyond the initial investment.
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1. Choy, Susan P. (2001). Students whose parents did not go to college: Postsecondary access, persistence, and attainment. The Condition of Education, 32.
2. Dubow, E. F., Boxer, P., & Huesmann, L. R. (2009). Long-term effects of parents’ education on children’s educational and occupational success: Mediation by family interactions, child aggression, and teenage aspirations. Merrill-Palmer quarterly (Wayne State University. Press), 55(3), 224–249.