An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Cassandra Ramos | June 9, 2014
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The Ph.D. is the highest degree awarded in the field of life sciences, and this achievement should be attainable by anyone with the aptitude, intellectual curiosity, and drive to pursue knowledge at the highest level. However, individuals from low-income households must overcome significant barriers to fulfill their academic potential with a doctoral degree.

The inspirational wonder of the natural sciences strikes high school students regardless of their background. Of recent high school graduates who enroll in college, 8% percent from families with incomes in the lowest quartile pursue a postsecondary degree in the biological/agricultural sciences (Figure 1). This is the same percentage as high school graduates from the two middle quartile household incomes (8%) and only three percentage points behind students from the highest quartile (11%).[1] However, low-income high school graduates do not seem to make it off those starting blocks. In 2012, only 50% of high school graduates from low-income households successfully enrolled in a 2-year or 4-year college, contrasting with the 64% and 80% of high school graduates from middle- and high-income households, respectively (Figure 2).[2] Even if the underrepresented students matriculate at universities, they have a relatively difficult time obtaining their degrees. Reports from 2009 show that less than 50% of all low-income students at 4-year colleges were able to earn their degree in six years—significantly less than the 65% and 76% of college students from households with high middle and high incomes (Figure 3).[3]


Figure 1: Comparison of incoming college students from different household income quartiles who declare a biological sciences major.


Figure 2: Comparison of recent high school graduates from different household income quintiles who enroll in 2- and 4-year colleges in 2012.


Figure 3: Comparison of 4-year college graduates from different household income quartiles who complete their degree within six years.

Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds face additional difficulties when completing their undergraduate education, such as inadequate academic preparation, lack of financial literacy, and lack of awareness of educational opportunities.[4] Remarkably, however, graduates from low-income households earn similar overall grade point averages (GPAs) and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) GPAs compared to their middle- and high-income peers (Figure 4).[5] Although low-income graduates have similar achievement levels, several other factors may deter them from entering a life sciences graduate program, such as relatively high debt and lack of support from low-income peers. First-generation college students whose parents have not received a college degree make up a significant proportion of students from low-income households. First-generation students may not pursue graduate education because they grew up in an environment where postsecondary education is not a cultural expectation, or they are expected to provide financial support for their families soon after college graduation.[6]


Figure 4: Comparison of overall and STEM GPAs of 4-year college graduates from different household income quartiles.

When this small percentage of low-income students graduates in a timely manner, they still have to face a disproportionate amount of student debt. Seventy-five percent of students from the lowest quartile households took out undergraduate loans, while only 67% of the two middle quartiles and 50% of the highest quartile borrowed money (Figures 5 and 6).[5] With greater loan amounts to repay, college graduates from low-income backgrounds may opt for entry level life science jobs, which pay a median salary of $29,000 and have a likelihood of pay raises.[5] This may be a more enticing option than enrolling in a graduate program in which predoctoral researchers on National Institutes of Health (NIH) training grants may receive a suggested salary of $22,032, earned for 6.9 years, the median time to complete a Ph.D. in the life sciences.[7,8] Upon completion of graduate studies, a disheartening 30% of life science doctorate recipients who were actively seeking employment remained unemployed.[9] Considering that parental education is an indicator of household income, it is unsurprising, then, that of all the life science doctorate recipients, 52-62% of the recipients had parents with a Bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 38-48% whose parents did not graduate college.[9,10]


Figure 5: Comparison of college graduates from different household income quartiles who took out undergraduate loans.


Figure 6: Comparison of debt owed by college graduates from different household income quartiles.

Unfortunately, life science research-based graduate education for persons from low socioeconomic backgrounds continues to be a struggle. In 2009, the National Science Foundation (NSF) launched its Recruitment and Retention Plan to Enhance Diversity in order to support research training for disadvantaged students in the sciences; however, the NSF failed to promote graduate students from low income backgrounds. The NSF Policy Related to Diversity states that the category of disadvantaged students, including “individuals who come from a family with an annual income below established low-income thresholds and individuals who come from a social, cultural, or educational disadvantaged environment, is most applicable to high school and undergraduate candidates, but would be more difficult to justify for individuals beyond that level of achievement.”[11]

In summary, students from all socioeconomic backgrounds are similarly interested in pursuing careers in the life sciences, but persons from low income households are less likely to enroll in 2- or 4-year colleges, and even less likely to complete the degree in a timely manner. College graduates from low income backgrounds have similar academic achievements as their peers from higher income households. However, the low income students accumulate more undergraduate debt and may experience pressures that are especially relevant to first-generation college graduates. Over half of life science doctorate recipients come from households whose parents have earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher, while a lower percentage of Ph.D. recipients have parents who did not complete college. While NSF makes an effort to support diversity in science research, predoctoral students from low income backgrounds are excluded from the policy. Achieving the highest academic degree in the life sciences appears to be significantly more difficult for persons from the lowest socioeconomic status.



1. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1996/01 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS:96/01).

2. U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), October, 1975 through 2012.

3. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2003–04 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, Second Follow-up (BPS:04/09).

4. Engberg, M. E., & Allen, D. J. (2011). Uncontrolled destinies: Improving opportunity for low-income students in American higher education. Research in Higher Education, 52(8), 786-807.

5. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2008-09 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study (B&B:08/09).

6. Engle, J. (2007). Postsecondary access and success for first-generation college students. American Academic, 3(1), 25-48.

7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, NIH Fiscal Policy for Grant Awards – FY 2013, NOT-OD-13-064.

8. National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2012.

9. National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates, Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2011.

10. Aarø, L. E., Flisher, A. J., Kaaya, S., Onya, H., Namisi, F. S., & Wubs, A. (2009). Parental education as an indicator of socioeconomic status: Improving quality of data by requiring consistency across measurement occasions. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health37(2 suppl), 16-27.

11. National Science Foundation, Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research, PA-12-149.