TARGET 8: Wealth gap remains between poor and rich students after attending college

Related Story

COLUMBIA - College students from poor families tend to earn a lot less in employment than their peers from better-off backgrounds, a new dataset suggests.

Many people, especially those from low-income backgrounds, expect to have higher earnings and improve social status by attending college. However, the data recently released by the National Institute of Computer Assisted Reporting shows most of them might be disappointed.

“I think students coming from wealthy families, they have far more advantages in terms of what they have the chance to do,” said Douglas Clark, senior student service coordinator at the MU TRiO Student Support Services.

The data shows a huge gap in the earnings of former college students from different financial backgrounds 10 years after starting college. It breaks down the financial backgrounds into three categories: low-income bracket ($0-30,000); middle-income bracket ($30,001-75,000); high-income bracket ($75,001+).

In Missouri, former college students from poor families tend to earn around $5,000 less annually than those from middle income families, and $9,000 less than those from high income families. The trend is also on par with the national gap.

“You see here, you work two to three jobs, on the top of the classes, and once you graduate you realize you are not even making that much once you graduate,” said Lakaysha Shields, a senior student of the University of Missouri.

Shields came from a single-mother family with three younger siblings in a low-income area in St. Louis County.

She said she is a first-generation college student in her family.

"My two little sisters they are 14 and 8. Especially the 8 [year-old], she tells everyone at school, ‘Oh my big sister goes to Mizzou,'" Shields said.

Shields has had to work since junior year of high school to finance her own education.

She said it was never a problem to work hard, but she’s started to struggle to balance work and school life since the beginning of senior year.

"I just applied for a second job. My friend was like, 'How are you gonna handle a second job?' I don't even know. But you know I have to do what I have to do in order to finish my last months strong," Shields said.

Despite her hard work, Shields said she’s in serious student loan debt, owing MU a lot of money. She was not optimistic about paying back the money any time soon.

“To be honest, I don't know how long it's gonna take me. My major is social work, and we don’t get paid a lot,” Shields said.

She said many other students shared the same struggle, especially those from low-income backgrounds.

“I think low-income students they have just not a bigger heart, but a desire to go back to help their communities. So they pick jobs focusing on that, and unfortunately those kind of jobs don't get paid enough," Shields said.

The earning gap in Missouri non-public schools – including private for-profit and private non-profit schools – is even bigger than their public counterparts, according to the dataset.

At Columbia College, a private higher education institution, the earning gap between poor and rich students is around $16,000 annually, according to the data.

Dan Gomez-Palacio, Director of Career Services Center of Columbia College, said he was a little surprised at the earning gap but said the choices in majors and job positions play a big part.

“I’ve seen a lot of our low-income students to go into criminal justice and human services which are fantastic careers. They’re going to have a very long rewarding careers, but those starting salaries are not going to be the same as those going into computer sciences,” Gomez-Palacio said.

Also, he said many would go back to rural areas or go into military.

Gomez-Palacio said students should look for resources like Student Success Program and Career Services to help them get better employment. These kinds of services are available and free in most colleges in Missouri.

“They can talk about getting a job here on campus, talk about a study-work group, get the experience but also manage a flexible schedule, can talk about budgeting, can talk about realistic expectations for what you will spend on college, what you can save money on,” he said.

Shields agreed, and she regretted that she didn’t start early in looking for these resources.

“I wish I knew more about scholarships, I wish I knew more about FASFA, I just wish I knew way more how to do this way before my senior high school,” Shields said.

She said students from wealthy families would have known about these resources since they have parents with college degrees. But things were different for her and a lot of the low-income students.

“I think if I would’ve went for more [scholarships], I probably wouldn’t in the same situation that I’m in,” Shield said.

When being asked if she thinks it’s worth it to attend college at all, Shields said no.

“But at the same time, in the society we live in. If you don’t have a BSW. I’m sorry, not a BSW, a bachelor’s or master’s, you’re not gonna make it,” Shields said.

She said she knew social services doesn’t pay as much, but she wants “to go back to my community to bring more low-income people into college.”

Gomez-Palacio said for those like Shields who want to start a career in lower-paying areas, there are still ways to ease their financial burden.

“Even in the non-profit world, there’s a difference between certain kind of positions and certain skill sets. And finally when’s a good time to go to grad school. If you’re already in a certain amount of debt, and you want to go into social services, let’s say maybe you need to work for five years to help you pay for the debt before you go to graduate school,” he said.

Use the map below to compare things like net costs, post-college earnings, and completion rates at public and non-public schools all around Missouri.