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Why a college degree means less for the poor, explained in one graph

Life isn't fair. With hard work and determination, some are able to get an education and improve their odds — or so goes a popular American belief.

But according to research from the Brookings Institution, a college degree goes a lot further if you were raised in a wealthier family.

Brookings economists found wealthier college graduates earn more than their poorer colleagues with the same level of education. Not only that, but the proportional salary increase comparing similar upbringings with different education levels is less for poorer college graduates.

College graduates raised in families below 185 percent of the federal poverty level earn 91 percent more than high school graduates raised in the same income level. However, college graduates from families with incomes above 185 percent of the federal poverty level earn 162 percent more throughout their careers compared with those with just high school diplomas:

Researchers are still looking into understanding why there is such a sharp gap between students raised in different income levels, floating some theories on the differences in colleges attended and opportunities available after college.

Income level has already been established as a highly discriminatory factor in college attendance. In 2009, fewer than 10 percent of students in the bottom income quartile (less than $33,000) received a bachelor's degree, according to Postsecondary Education Opportunity.

One thing is for certain: More education does tend to increase earnings and employment opportunities overall. It just increases them a lot more for people raised in wealthier families.