Urban Wire Understanding the Effects of Investments in Increasing Educational Attainment Using the Social Genome Model
Kristin Blagg
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High School graduates pose for pictures next to the Manhattan Beach Pier

The financial benefits of education are well known—the typical person with a high school diploma tends to earn more than a person without a diploma, and the typical college graduate tends to earn even more.

With limited resources, policymakers often face a key trade-off: Where should they focus educational intervention efforts? Should investments help more high school students get to graduation day or increase the number of students who enroll and attain degrees at four-year colleges?

In a recent report, the Social Genome Model team looked at the potential effects of increasing attainment of high school, associate’s, and bachelor’s degrees on later-life outcomes. Our modeling results reveal some information that can help policymakers navigate these trade-offs.

A bachelor’s degree can change a person’s earning trajectory more dramatically than a high school diploma, but interventions to support high school graduation are likely to help more people. And the typical returns to a degree vary by not only the level of the credential but also sex and race and ethnicity. As postsecondary enrollment continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and as potential students examine the value of a higher education, understanding the magnitude of these returns is especially important.

Increasing educational attainment generates strong economic returns

Increasing access to higher education can convey a host of individual and societal returns, although these returns vary by demographic group (PDF). In our analysis of three educational interventions, we looked at projected returns for people who wouldn’t otherwise get a diploma or degree. These “marginal” graduates—those who are prompted to attain a degree because of the intervention—can often experience substantial earnings returns relative to their previous trajectories.

We looked at the estimated effect of these interventions if they were implemented with fidelity at a national scale (i.e., at all high schools, all two-year schools, or all four-year schools) on average earnings at age 30 and projected lifetime earnings. The first, Small Schools of Choice (SSC) (PDF), is aimed at increasing high school diploma attainment. The second, the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs intervention, provides supports for finishing an associate’s degree. The third, the High Achieving Involved Leader (HAIL) scholarship intervention, identifies high-achieving students from low-income families and informs them of their eligibility for free tuition and fees at the University of Michigan.

Broadly, as the level of educational attainment increases, fewer people overall are able to benefit (i.e., attain a diploma or degree). This attrition makes sense, as credentials are cumulative, and a student must earn a high school diploma or GED before attaining an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Of course, these interventions could be more targeted. Policymakers could intervene only in high schools with a graduation rate below the national average, for example. Considering the overall national effect allows for the most direct comparison of these three interventions.

Because of its broader scale, the intervention that increases high school degree attainment had the largest overall average effect. Averaged across all people in our model, the SSC intervention raises average incomes at age 30 by $352 and discounted projected lifetime earnings by $14,615.


Interventions Aimed at Bachelor’s Degrees Increased Individual Earnings the Most, but High School Interventions Produced the Largest Aggregate Increase


Average Earnings at Age 30

Projected Lifetime Earnings

Attainment type and intervention

Share who benefit

Overall population increase

New recipient increase

Overall population increase

New recipient increase

High school diploma (SSC)

5.0 p.p.





Associate’s degree (ASAP)

4.6 p.p.





Bachelor’s degree (HAIL)

1.3 p.p.





Source:Urban Institute analysis of the Social Genome Model.
Notes:ASAP = Accelerated Study in Associate Programs; HAIL = High Achieving Involved Leader; SSC = Small Schools of Choice. P.p. = percentage point increase of those who attain a diploma or degree. A recipient is a person who earns a diploma or degree as a result of the intervention. Lifetime income is in present discounted value, in 2018 dollars.


Among those who receive a diploma or degree when they otherwise would not, the average changes are much larger. A person receiving a bachelor’s degree through the HAIL intervention saw the most transformative change, with lifetime income projected to increase by more than $400,000.

Even among those who benefit from these interventions, not all benefit equally. In our SSC policy simulations, more men than women attain high school diplomas. But in our higher education interventions, women (especially Hispanic and Black women) are projected to attain associate’s and bachelor’s degrees at a higher rate than men. And, reflecting the broader gender wage gap, men see larger earnings boosts from an additional degree than women.

Enrollment changes because of the pandemic have prompted a focus on improving attainment

Our analyses come at a time when higher education enrollment continues to decline (PDF), most likely because of the tight labor market. Our models show programs that increase attainment, particularly bachelor’s degrees, can generate large changes in earnings trajectories. These interventions target the marginal graduate—students who need just a little more financial, academic, or counseling support to reach graduation day. Now, more than ever, it might be difficult for these students to stay in school and on track for a diploma or degree.

Policymakers who want to ensure equitable access to the benefits of a high school diploma or a degree should consider the scope and economic return of programs aimed at helping students attain their credential. The decision of where to invest resources and how to implement these or similar programs will depend on local context. At any degree level, currently enrolled students could benefit from additional supports to help them achieve long-term earnings gains.

Explore a summary of all of our crossroads interventions here: https://apps.urban.org/features/influencing-mobility-and-inequality/

Research Areas Education
Tags Higher education Inequities in educational achievement K-12 education Postsecondary education and training Secondary education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy
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