Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

April 30, 2017

Higher Ed’s Role in Economic Mobility

by John Friedman

Which colleges in America contribute the most to helping children climb the income ladder? How can we increase access to these colleges for children from low-income families? In a recent paper, my co-authors (Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez, Nicholas Turner, and Danny Yagan) and I take a step toward answering these questions by constructing publicly available “Mobility Report Cards” – statistics on students’ earnings in their mid-thirties and their parents’ incomes – for each college and university in the United States.

Mobility Report Cards for Columbia and SUNY-Stony Brook

The figure above gives an example of these statistics for two schools in the New York City area: Columbia University and the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook. The bars show the fraction of students whose parents’ income falls into each quintile of the income distribution (and even the top 1 percent, in the darker portion of the rightmost bar). The lines show the fraction of students from each quintile who reach the top quintile as adults. We define a college’s mobility rate as the product of access and the top-quintile rate, a statistic that can be interpreted as the fraction of a school’s students that successfully move from the bottom to the top of the income ladder.

The comparison between Columbia and SUNY-Stony Brook demonstrates two broader patterns that we find across institutions in the United States.

First, at any given college, students from low- and high- income families have very similar earnings outcomes. For example, about 60 percent of students at Columbia reach the top fifth from both low- and high-income families. In this sense, colleges are “level playing fields” across enrolled students with different socioeconomic backgrounds. This suggests that students from low-income families who are admitted to selective colleges are not over-placed, since they do nearly as well as students from more affluent families. This result also suggests that colleges do not bear large costs in terms of student outcomes for any policies that offer an admissions advantage to students from low-income families.

Second, mobility rates vary substantially across colleges because there are large differences in access across colleges with similar outcomes. Ivy-plus colleges (Ivy league, plus Stanford University, The University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT, and Duke University) have the highest outcomes, with almost 60 percent of students from the bottom fifth reaching the top fifth. But some less selective universities have nearly comparable top quintile rates while offering much higher levels of access to low-income families. For example, 51 percent of students from the bottom fifth reach the top fifth at SUNY–Stony Brook, which is considerably less selective than Columbia.

Because 16 percent of students at Stony Brook are from the bottom fifth compared with 4 percent at the Ivy-Plus colleges, Stony Brook has a bottom-to-top-fifth mobility rate of 8.4 percent, substantially higher than the 3.1 percent mobility rate at Columbia. More generally, the colleges that have the highest upward mobility rates are typically mid-tier public colleges and universities that have both many low-income students and decent outcomes.

Trends in Low-Income Access at Selected Colleges

Unfortunately, our analysis also shows unfavorable trends in access over the past fifteen years. Despite substantial tuition reductions and other outreach policies, the fraction of students from low-income families at the Ivy-Plus colleges increased very little across a range of income percentiles. Perhaps even more troubling, access at institutions with the highest mobility rates (e.g., SUNY-Stony Brook, Glendale Community College) fell sharply over the 2000s, perhaps because of reductions in state support or tuition increases. The changes in access were not associated with significant changes in success rates. Thus, the colleges that may have offered many low-income students pathways to success are serving them less intensively than in the past.

There are three key policy takeaways from this work. First, access to mid-tier public institutions is likely critical to providing broad-based mobility for American students, yet policy conversations too often focus instead on the most elite schools and on community colleges. Second, policymakers should continue to support policies that increase access to elite schools for students from low-income families, since such students currently admitted seem to excel in that setting. Finally, the unfavorable trends in access at the highest mobility schools for poor students over the past fifteen years – despite many different policies designed to increase access – suggest that it is more important now than ever to find new policies to reverse this decline.

John Friedman is an associate professor of Economics and International Affairs and Public Policy at Brown University.

Originally published on Impatient Optimists.

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