Equity and Access

2019 Higher Ed Colloquium Focuses on Economic Mobility and the Value of a College Education

Policymakers and college leaders have long touted higher education as the pathway to the middle class, the engine of opportunity that helps drive the American Dream for millions of students.

Policymakers and college leaders have long touted higher education as the pathway to the middle class, the engine of opportunity that helps drive the American Dream for millions of students.

That rhetoric is now being tested against real-world data on economic mobility, giving researchers a detailed look at which schools truly propel students up the income ladder in the years after graduation.

“If you can serve low-income students at your institutions, you are changing their life outcomes,” said Joe Garcia, President of the Colorado Community College System. “That’s something we should all care about.”

Garcia’s personal story offers a compelling case for the power of education to change a person’s trajectory. At the 2019 College Board Colloquium, he talked about working as a truck driver before eventually making his way to Harvard Law and rising to become Lt. Governor of Colorado. 

He opened a discussion of economic mobility by pointing to the stark statistics on college outcomes for low-income students. Students from the highest income quartile remain nearly four times as likely to earn college degrees as their peers from the lowest income quartile. “We’ve seen virtually no growth in the portion of low-income students who earn a bachelor’s degree,” Garcia said. 

Garcia argued that social mobility is about more than income. Moving into a higher tax bracket is a fine outcome, but mobility can mean different things depending on individual ambition. Class mobility is more complex than just economic success. 

“We talk about those things like they’re the same thing, but they’re not,” Garcia said. “You can make more money, but that doesn’t guarantee you access to the same places in society.”

A more nuanced reading of mobility argues for a collegiate focus on more than just marketable skills. What some scholars have called the “hidden curriculum” of college — the ability to navigate different cultural settings, forge friendships and networking ties across the economic spectrum, recognize subtle markers of class — can be just as important as direct job skills.

Last month, Stanford researcher Caroline Hoxby, an influential advocate for low-income college access, called for a more flexible approach to gauging mobility, Focusing on income differences is too simplistic, she argued, and can cause colleges to focus on misguided measures for improving access and student success. “What makes measurement challenging is that different institutions face students whose family income and preparation differ,” wrote Hoxby and her research partner, Sarah Turner. “We are attempting to give higher-education leaders the understanding and tools needed to conduct self-evaluation that is likely to further those good intentions.”

Braden Hosch, Assistant Vice President for Institutional Research, Planning, and Effectiveness at SUNY Stony Brook, spoke at Colloquium about the importance of detailed self-evaluation. He said economists and policymakers are just scratching the surface of measuring college outcomes, and far more detailed measures of long-term wellbeing for students and graduates will soon be the norm. 

“We’re about to see an explosion of data,” Hosch said. “You will be beset by all kinds of additional data, both good and bad.”

At Stony Brook, administrators like Hosch have used detailed analytics to find promising students from lower-income families and design support programs to help them reach graduation. That effort helped boost the campus’s graduation rate by a staggering 15% over four years, and propel it near the top of national mobility rankings.

Because the current mobility rankings rely on a combination of access for low-income students and their likelihood of reaching the top income quintile after graduation, Stony Brook benefits both from relatively low tuition and a focus on majors in STEM fields, which tend to pay well. 

Garcia applauded the effort to welcome and serve more low-income students, but noted that even access-oriented institutions are finding much of their success by recruiting poor students with strong academic credentials. “Most students are not straight-A students,” he said. “How do we serve all those other students? We need them to be successful to drive our economy in the years ahead.”

Hosch agreed, but said it’s so expensive to fund aid and support services for low-income students that colleges are reluctant to take a risk on those with poorer high-school preparation. “The question is how we take those B- students and make them successful in higher education?”