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Toolkit | Access to Postsecondary Education


Social & Economic Impact of Improving Access to Higher Education for Immigrant Students

General Findings from a 2008 Report

Investing in Post-Secondary Education Yields Higher Earnings and Increased State Revenues

Tuition Equity Policies Reduce Drop-Out Rates and Increase Access to College

A State’s Economic Competitiveness Depends on Maintaining a Highly Educated Populace

Resources on Social & Economic Contributions of Immigrants


STATE LAWS AND POLICIES THAT SEEK to improve access to higher education are premised on the value of a college education to individuals as well as the broader society. Independent research has examined the long-term benefits of tuition equity measures, including the higher income earned and increased taxes paid by college-educated individuals.


Tuition Equity Legislation: Investing in Colorado High School Graduates through Equal Opportunity Postsecondary Education (Elise A. Keaton, Center for Policy Entrepreneurship, Dec. 2008).

This report, prepared as the Colorado legislature considered a tuition equity bill, examines the social and economic impact of improving access to higher education, based in part on the experience of states with tuition equity policies in place. Findings include:

  • Test scores. “[C]hildren whose parents have at least some college education have higher cognitive levels, better scores in math and reading tests, and higher standardized test scores than peers whose parents have only achieved at or below a high school diploma.” Citing U.S. Census Bureau, College Board, and U.S. Department of Education.
  • Dropout rates. “[I]nitial assessments seem to indicate that tuition equity laws may have slowed the dropout rates for undocumented students and closed the dropout rate gap between Hispanic students and other students.” (Examines data from various states.)
  • Smoking. “An estimated 47.5 percent of male and 38.8 percent of female GED earners smoked compared with 11.9 percent of males and 9.6 percent of females with bachelor’s degrees.” Citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Home ownership. “More than 80 percent of individuals with a graduate or professional degree own their own home compared with only 56 percent of individuals with less than a 9th grade education and only 68 percent of individuals with a high school diploma or a GED.” Citing U.S. Census data. 
  • Fiscal impact. In its review of the fiscal analyses in states with tuition equity laws, the report found either indeterminate, little, or no negative fiscal impact resulting from these policies.



The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings (Jennifer Cheeseman Day and Eric C. Newburger, U.S. Census Bureau, July 2002).

  • The report confirms that earnings increase with educational level. Among adults ages 25 to 64, average earnings ranged from $18,900 for high school dropouts to $25,900 for high school graduates, $45,400 for college graduates, and $99,300 for workers with professional degrees (M.D., J.D., D.D.S., or D.V.M.).
  • Earnings differences by educational attainment compound over one’s lifetime. For full-time, year-round workers, earnings estimates over 40 years are about $1 million for high school drop-outs, $1.2 million for high school graduates, $2.1 million for college graduates, and $4.4 million for workers with professional degrees.

California’s Economic Payoff: Investing in College Access & Completion (Jon Stiles, Michael Hout & Henry Brady, Institute for the Study of Societal Issues for The Campaign for College Opportunity, April 2012).

  • For every dollar California invests in getting students into and through college, it receives a net return on investment of $4.50. The return for those who complete college is twice as high—$4.80—than for those who enter but fail to complete college—$2.40.
  • The return on the state’s initial investment is surprisingly quick; by the time a graduate reaches the age of 38, the state’s initial investment is repaid in full. The costs of investing in higher education would need to more than triple before it would fail to return the state’s original investment.
  • University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) graduates provide ongoing returns to the state averaging $12 billion annually, well above the state’s general fund expenditures for the UC, CSU, and California community college systems combined.
  • The investments in education are part of a continued and long-term strategy in building state infrastructure. Decreasing investments in higher education today would decrease state revenues substantially in the years to come.
  • The personal payoff for each Californian who earns a college degree is substantial—more than $1,340,000 on average over a lifetime, when compared to peers with only a high school diploma.  This amount has increased consistently over the last four decades for the overall state population and for individuals of all ethnic groups.
  • Entering and completing college dramatically alters an individual’s economic well-being, decreasing the expected time in poverty by nearly four years and the receipt of cash aid by more than two years.

Higher Education: Higher Pay, Higher Tax Revenue (The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis [Virginia], Jan. 22, 2013).

  • Earnings for adults increase with years of education and degree completion.
  • Virginia also sees a clear return on investment from a college education, since higher-earning individuals pay more in income, property, and sales taxes.
  • Immigrants in Virginia are already contributing to Virginia’s economy in important ways.

Maximizing Access to College for Immigrant Children Builds the Texas Economy (Center for Public Policy Priorities, Feb. 5, 2013).

  • The estimated general revenue used to support instruction and financial costs for these undocumented immigrant students totaled $21.63 million, while the students themselves paid $32.7 million in total tuition and fees.
  • Families headed by an undocumented immigrant in Texas paid an estimated $1.6 billion in state and local taxes in 2010.
  • And in 2006, the Texas Comptroller found that undocumented immigrants in Texas generated more taxes and other revenue than they received in state and local benefits.
  • One study has shown that high-school drop-out rates of Mexican foreign-born non-citizen students in states with in-state resident tuition laws fell from 42 percent to 35 percent after implementation of the law.
  • A Texas worker who completes some college can increase their earnings potential by 96 percent. And those with a four-year degree or higher can increase their earning potential by as much as 139 percent.

Current Population Reports: Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009 (Camille L. Ryan and Julie Siebens, United States Census Bureau, Feb. 2012).

  • “Among all workers, higher educational attainment was generally associated with higher earnings. The median earnings ranged from about $18,000 for workers with less than a high school degree, to over $60,000 for those with an advanced degree. Workers with a regular high school diploma earned about $27,000, and those with a GED earned about $23,000. Those with a bachelor’s degree earned about $48,000.”
  • “People with the highest educational attainment were the least likely to be unemployed in any given month” during the period of January 2008 to December 2010.
  • “In August 2010, the unemployment rate for people with less than a high school diploma or GED was 13.3 percent, while the unemployment rate for people with an advanced degree was 4.1 percent. The respective rates for these two groups in March 2008 were 9.5 percent and 1.5 percent. High school graduates were more likely to be unemployed than bachelor’s degree holders within each month of this period.”