collegedegree82Depending on their discipline, scholars can look at the same issue in completely different ways. The oft-debated question of who benefits most from college is a case in point.

Economists would say that high school students consider the costs and benefits of a college education, and those who stand to benefit the most are the ones most likely to attend. But sociologists question this classic economic theory, arguing that it doesn’t adequately explain why disadvantaged youth are under–represented on college campuses.

In the current issue of the American Sociological Review, a pair of sociologists present findings of their research that shows those who are most likely to get the highest economic returns from college are those least likely to attend.

Specifically, their study shows the economic value of a college degree is nearly twice as high for women from disadvantaged backgrounds as for women from privileged backgrounds. The benefits are even greater for disadvantaged men. A college education is worth three times more for them than for privileged college-goers.

“Individuals with relatively disadvantaged social backgrounds and low levels of early achievement — or those with the lowest probability of completing college — benefit the most from completing college,” said Jennie E. Brand, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California-Los Angeles said in a statement. Brand co-authored the study with Yu Xie of the University of Michigan.

Who is likely to get the lowest financial return? You guessed it. Those students who are most likely to go to college, according to the research. This group would include those with more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, high ability and high levels of high school achievement, parents with at least some college education, and friends who plan to go to college.

How to account for these findings that fly in the face of classic economic wisdom? Brand says: “One reason college graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds do so much better financially than their peers who don’t pursue higher education is because high school graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds face such a tough labor market.” 

In contrast, those who are more likely to attend college are also more likely to have parents who have the means and networks to help them get a job.

“For them, a college-degree isn’t as financially consequential as for high school graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she added.

“Our findings underscore the value of reaching out to poor and minority youth with less-educated parents and other traits that have been shown to reduce the chances of going to college, and emphasizing its potential benefits,” Brand said.