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Why Does College Access Matter?

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Back to College Access & Admissions

Despite a small but vocal group of critics arguing against expanding college access, most Americans are convinced of higher education’s advantages. About eight in 10 students surveyed by the U.S. Department of Education said they expected to complete a postsecondary degree.

The popular appreciation of college’s value is backed by lots of hard data. Research shows that those with any education beyond high school generally get better jobs and bigger paychecks and lead healthier lives — even after controlling for students’ backgrounds. Studies of identical twins with different levels of schooling, for example, find that each additional year of education is associated with a 5 percent gain in earnings.

More significantly, those students who earn postsecondary degrees reap a significant “sheepskin effect,” especially when it comes to career opportunities and earnings.

The upshot: Access to higher education is key in creating upward economic mobility — the “American Dream” that children can earn more money than their parents and improve their overall economic standing. (The Opportunity Insights project at Harvard University studied the role of colleges in upward mobility across generations.)