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The American dream -- the idea that everyone is given an equal chance to succeed -- is embedded in U.S. politics and culture. But the reality is that Americans start off in different places in ways that are sometimes difficult to overcome.

A study of first-generation college students published today by the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics shows that children of college-educated parents are much more likely to pursue and complete an undergraduate degree than are young people whose parents did not attend college. However, the gap closed significantly upon completion of a bachelor's degree, and the two groups' employment status, salary amounts and rates of enrollment in a master's degree were nearly the same.

The study followed three groups of students from three federal databases -- high school sophomores in 2002, college freshmen in 2003 and graduates in 2007 -- as they moved through their education (or didn’t). Researchers divided students into three groups: one where at least one parent got a degree, one where at least one parent had some college and one where neither parent had any college. The results showed that an individual’s schooling pursuits were significantly influenced by their parents' backgrounds.

A person’s parental education levels affected their choice of college, the study found. Nearly half of all first-generation students who enrolled in postsecondary education chose a public two-year college, compared to about one-quarter of the children of college graduates. And of the students who enrolled in public four-year universities, 45 percent had parents with college degrees, while 26 percent did not. Meanwhile, only 7 percent of first-generation college students chose a private college, compared to 23 percent of students with parents who earned a bachelor’s degree.

The children of parents without degrees were less likely to persist through and graduate from college for economic and social reasons, the study found. First-generation college students are more likely to be of a lower socioeconomic status, meaning they have less money to cover their college costs. They also didn’t have the advantage of parents with firsthand college experience, who could guide them through the college-going process.

One-third of first-generation students dropped out of college after three years, compared to 14 percent of their peers whose parents had earned a degree. About two-thirds of the children of college graduates were set to graduate on time three years after enrolling, compared to 48 percent of first-generation students.

Among the sample, the study found that college graduates pursued postgraduate study and earned additional credentials at the same rate, regardless of their parents’ level of education.

However, the study found a discrepancy between those who had entered doctoral programs. Among individuals with college-educated parents, 10 percent of college graduates had enrolled in a doctoral program within four years of receiving a bachelor’s degree, compared to 5 percent of first-generation college students.

Parental background had virtually no impact on students' experience obtaining work, the study found. Among first-generation college graduates, 68 percent were working and no longer enrolled in study four years after graduating from college, compared to 70 percent of students with university-educated parents.

In a similar vein, the salaries of college graduates differed only slightly according to background. Among first-generation college graduates, the median full-time salary was $45,000. For the children of college graduates, that amount increased by $500 to $45,500.

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