Equity and Access

Higher Education and the American Dream

The Equality of Opportunity Project shows that the country’s colleges and universities, long regarded as engines of opportunity, vary wildly in their success at vaulting low-income students into better life circumstances

Economic mobility is at the very core of the American dream.

The promise that hard work and talent will be rewarded — that even the lowest-income Americans can work their way up the economic ladder and achieve a better life than their parents — is fundamental to our sense of fairness.

That’s why new research from the Equality of Opportunity Project has caused such a stir in higher education. It shows that the country’s colleges and universities, long regarded as engines of opportunity, vary wildly in their success at vaulting low-income students into better life circumstances.

“There’s a ton of variation between schools,” said Brown University economist John Friedman, speaking last month at the College Board’s 2018 Forum in Dallas. “How can we find out what those schools are doing that are really outperforming on economic mobility?”

One of the biggest challenges for higher education is that vanishingly few poor students attend elite schools. As a result, some of the country’s top-ranked colleges don’t make much of an impact in upward mobility.

Friedman and his colleagues crunched the numbers to produce “mobility report cards” for schools across the country. Their method assesses which institutions enroll a large share of students from the lowest income quartile and then see them reach the top quartile in the years after graduation. The New York Times used the data to create a searchable comparison of institutions across the country.

By identifying schools that seem to do well in both enrolling and supporting low-income students, researchers hope to find insights that can be applied across higher education. “Why are some of these colleges such engines of upward mobility?” Friedman asked. “And how can we learn from them to expand economic mobility across the U.S.?”

Some of the top performers are public institutions in places like California, Texas, and New York. Those universities serve a growing population of low-income students, and they’ve got a track record of helping their graduates earn higher-paying jobs.

The most basic lessons from those schools involve more financial support and guidance for low-income students. Stronger financial aid, consolidated course schedules, and mentoring programs can go a long way in keeping low-income students enrolled and on-track for graduation.

Kristin Croyle is the Vice President for Student Success at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She said a focus on serving disadvantaged students benefits the whole university. “When you restructure something for a first-generation student, you’re actually structuring it better for everybody,” she said. “All students have those needs; they’re just more apparent in first-generation students.”

She pointed to changes in the university’s policy on dropping students from courses when they have unpaid bills. By extending the time to pay instead of kicking a student out, the institution both earns more tuition revenue and keeps more students on track for graduation, avoiding a spiral of missed requirements and extra semesters that might cause even academically successful students to leave without a degree.

“You need thoughtful strategies around these student services,” she said. “We want students to know that within an environment of support, they can do hard things.”

The detailed data on mobility outcomes is still relatively new, so researchers are just beginning to assess how well different schools pass along the skills and cultural capital that lead to higher-paying careers. But David Gardner, the Chief Academic Officer for Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said that both policymakers and students expect more focus on long-term success for graduates.

Most students go to college to get a better job, and that’s not an unreasonable expectation,” he said. “We know we’re going to be a diverse society … but will we have a diverse workforce? Are we empowering everyone to really benefit from the economy?”

In the era of mobility report cards, successful schools not only need an answer. They need the data to back it up.