Which Colleges Pay Off for Low-Income Students?

Which Colleges Pay Off for Low-Income Students?

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As juniors and seniors return to high school this fall, part of their school day likely will include thinking about which colleges and universities they’ll apply to.

But recent data suggests that’s the case for fewer students, as college enrollment remains sluggish and some members of Gen Z remain skeptical that a four-year degree is the best option post-high school.

And while higher education generally leads to higher-paying jobs for graduates, research shows it doesn’t equally impact first-generation or low-income college students.

With all this in mind, EdSurge dove into the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard data to find colleges and universities where low-income students (defined here as those who come from families with household incomes of $30,000 or less) and first-generation students end up making the highest salaries after earning their degrees. (It’s important to note that the data only tracks students who received federal grants or took out federal student loans.)

EdSurge also talked to Zoe B. Corwin, a research professor at the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education, about what colleges can do to prepare to serve these populations.

Top Earnings

Colleges and universities that specialize in health and technology proved to serve low-income students who end up with the highest starting salaries six years after they enrolled. For this earnings data, College Scorecard does not take into account whether students graduated or not.

Hover your cursor over each bar to read details about each institution.


This bar chart plots universities and colleges in order of median earnings for low-income students six years after enrollment. Source: College Scorecard. Data visualization by Nadia Tamez-Robledo.


The California Institute of Technology topped the list with median earnings of about $167,000 for low-income students six years after their initial enrollment.

That’s followed by the private health sciences institution Samuel Merritt University, with a $134,000 median salary among low-income students, then by the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, with $129,000 starting earnings.


Source: College Scorecard. Data visualization by Nadia Tamez-Robledo.

Graduation Rates Matter

Students cannot, of course, reap the benefits of a college degree if they don’t graduate.

About 89 percent of students from low-income families complete their degrees within six years at Samuel Merritt University, and the Albany health sciences college shows that 73 percent of low-income and 72 percent of first-generation students complete their programs in the same timeframe. Completion rate data was not available for the California Institute of Technology.

The data shows that, particularly among public and private non-profit colleges, low-income students’ earnings increase as schools’ low-income graduation rate increases.

Hover your cursor over each dot to read details about each institution.


Source: College Scorecard. Data visualization by Nadia Tamez-Robledo.

The public universities with top-earning graduates from low-income families — State University of New York Health Sciences, California State Maritime Academy and Oregon Health and Science University — each have six-year graduation rates of 59 percent or higher among low-income students. California State Maritime Academy also reported a 62 percent graduation rate for first-generation students. (The figure wasn’t available for the other two institutions.)

Taking a closer look at first-generation students, universities that have higher rates of first-generation students graduating within six years also see higher median earnings for graduates overall.

Hover your cursor over each circle to read details about each institution.


Source: College Scorecard. Data visualization by Nadia Tamez-Robledo.

College Majors That Secure the Bag

College Scorecard tracks earnings up to four years post-graduation divvied up by students’ field of study. It’s perhaps no surprise that engineering and medicine are yielding the highest salaries for low-income students. While this area of College Scorecard data isn’t broken down by student income level, it does highlight the earnings of students who received the Pell Grant, a federal college grant based on financial need.


Scroll to see all data. Source: College Scorecard. Data visualization by Nadia Tamez-Robledo.

Pell-recipient students who studied naval architecture made a median salary of nearly $117,000 four years after graduation. Those who earned a degree in biomathematics and bioinformatics brought home a comparable median salary, and students who graduated in nuclear engineering earned around a $100,000 salary.

Majors like cosmetology, communications technology, and somatic bodywork (a type of psychotherapy) earned the lowest salaries for Pell-recipient students four years after graduation — $20,000, $22,200, and $29,000 respectively.

What It Takes to Succeed

Helping low-income and first-generation students eventually reach the higher earnings promised by higher education is about much more than getting them in the door, says Corwin, of the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education.

She’s part of a team of researchers who have spent roughly six years examining the best ways for colleges and universities to support what she calls “at-promise” students — those who come from low-income families, are the first in their family to attend college, and racially minoritized students.

The idea of ranking colleges carries a bit of controversy, and we wrote last year about a new approach to classifying colleges based on the upward mobility they afford to low-income students.

But Corwin’s work focuses on how colleges can help these students succeed once they’re already on campus. Over the course of her 20 years in the field, Corwin says efforts are being made to focus not on just getting these students into college but helping them thrive — or, as she put it, “not only focusing on are students ready for colleges, but are colleges ready for students?”

“One of the things that we’ve learned from working with a lot of first-generation students over the years is, they come into college with excitement and all the things continuing-generation students do, but they also have quite a lot of expectations from family and community as to what they’re gonna do after they graduate,” Corwin says. “It’s really important to be thoughtful about how colleges are not only meeting the academic needs of students, but also the socio-emotional and the career and post-graduation needs of students.”

Colleges might put emphasis on academic competition and individualism, she explains, whereas their first-generation students might come from communities that value collaboration above either of those.

“If you look at different groups of students and the ways that they perhaps learned in community to support each other and collaborate with each other, how are we doing that within the university context?” Corwin says. “Can we do that in a way that’s like, ‘Let’s learn together what this is like. Let’s bring in alumni to talk to us about what the jobs are.’ So that would be like a more collectivist way of thinking about it.”

Corwin adds that first-generation and low-income students also tend to lack the professional networks and mentorship opportunities of their peers, who can more commonly lean on their parents for college and professional guidance. That means that they’ll need more support at every stage of their post-graduation planning, from thinking through which major is best to finding internships to putting together a professional wardrobe.

“It’s really important that the universities are making sure that they are providing robust guidance for students, especially first-generation students,” Corwin says, offering examples of prompting questions a mentor could ask to help students think through their plans. “If your major is Spanish, how about getting a job or internship at a Spanish-language newspaper or at a real estate company or at a media firm? Are you doing those things that are going to set you up well for finding a job after you graduate?”

College career centers can offer a plethora of resources for “at-promise” students, but that alone is not a guarantee that everyone who needs those services knows where to find them. An important element beyond having access to support services, Corwin says, is the ability of those staff members to tailor their guidance to students’ individual needs.

A student who has been in the foster care system, for example, might see their top priority following high school graduation as stable housing above all else. A career center counselor who understands that would be able to help them look at jobs or internships locally or in areas with affordable housing options.

“It’s making sure people know about the resources and also making sure that the resources are adapting and being responsive to the student population,” Corwin says.



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