First-generation students receive an average starting salary 12% below the starting salary of their peers, according to a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
The wage gap between first-gen students and their peers persists long after graduation, finds a new study published in Research in Higher Education. In fact, first-gen students earn substantially less than their peers 10 years after graduation, write Anna Manzoni and Jessi Streib, the study's co-authors, for The Conversation.
To create the study, Manzoni and Streib, both sociology professors, analyzed data from the federal Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study for 1992-93 graduates, the most recent data set available that follows young people 10 years after graduation. They found that first-gen men and women earn, respectively, 11% and 9% less per year (or $7,500 less and $4,350 less) than their peers.
Even among students who had the same socioeconomic background, attended the same type of institution, studied the same major, and earned the same GPA, Manzoni and Streib found that first-gen men and women still earn, respectively, 6% and 3% less than their peers.
First-gen students who study majors with more subjective criteria, like the humanities, face a larger wage gap after graduation, write Manzoni and Streib. First-gen men who studied arts and humanities earn up to 17% less than their peers who studied the same subject.
But efforts to push first-generation students to attend prestigious colleges or pursue higher-paying majors may not do much to close the wage gap, argue Manzoni and Streib.
First-gen students who attend elite colleges still don't earn the same salaries as their peers, they write. At elite colleges, only first-gen men see their wage gap shrink, and they still earn about 8% (or $600) less per year than their peers. And first-gen students are already well-represented in high-paying majors, like business and health.
Related: How to prepare low-income students for the job market
The root problem is that first-gen student aren't getting the same jobs as their peers. First-gen students do earn the same amount as their peers if they enter the same profession, write Manzoni and Streib.
First-gen students often work in the public and not-for-profit sectors, which tend to pay less than jobs in the private and for-profit sectors. For example, first-gen men are 4% less likely than their peers to work in the for-profit sector and 3% more likely to work in the state or local government. Similarly, they're 4% more likely to work a clerical job, 3% more likely to work a blue-collar job, and 7% less likely to work in STEM.
First-gen students may not be landing the same high-paying jobs as their peers because they're not familiar with those jobs or don't have the same professional network, write Manzoni and Streib. First-gen students may also not live in areas where high-paying jobs exist or have a lower ability to relocate, they add.
To prepare students for the job market, some colleges are finding ways to help first-gen students build a professional network. The University of California at Berkeley, for example, held a conference in 2017 for its first-generation students where they could network with first-generation alumni and employers. During the conference, the alumni and employers offered college and career advice.
And LaGuardia Community College's pre-college academic programming and College and Career Pathways Institute incorporates content about specific career paths and lessons on navigating office culture (Manzoni/Streib, The Conversation, 10/25).