Upward Mobility: What are we really talking about when we talk about student success and improving student outcomes?

Upward Climb shutterstock_524909107.jpgA true measure of success and a cornerstone of the American dream is upward mobility. Success is more than just a good paying job. It is the chance to own a home, have a family and be part of a prosperous community. Student success For a low or middle income student to graduate and become a top income earner - that is success. The kind of upward mobility that is the Horatio Alger pull yourself up by the boot straps story that in recent years seems more a myth than a reality. The idea of a cycle that perpetuates student success is something that most colleges and universities strive to achieve.

A recent story by Sophia Alvarez Boyd for NPR called “Which Colleges Might Give You The Best Bang For Your Buck?” featured an interview with Raj Chetty, coauthor of “The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility.”

The research was conducted by the Equality of Opportunity Project whose mission is, “to develop scalable policy solutions that will empower families to rise out of poverty and achieve better life outcomes.”  The participants hope to achieve this goal, “by harnessing the power of big data to learn from areas where the American Dream is still thriving.”  The research offers some interesting findings, including some that seem to counter long held assumptions.

Here are just a few examples:

  • “Access to colleges varies substantially across the income distribution. Among “Ivy-Plus” colleges (the eight Ivy League colleges, University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT, and Duke), more students come from families in the top 1% of the income distribution (14.5%) than the bottom half of the income distribution (13.5%).”
  • “There is no strong evidence of a “missing middle” – the hypothesis that students from the middle class may be especially under-represented at elite private schools, since low-income students receive substantial financial aid and high-income students have ample resources. On the contrary, students from the lowest-income families have the smallest enrollment shares at the most selective private colleges, both in absolute numbers and relative to comparably ranked public schools.”
  • “Only 3.8% of students come from the bottom 20% of the income distribution at Ivy-Plus colleges. As a result, children from families in the top 1% are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy-Plus college compared to the children from families in the bottom 20%. More broadly, looking across all colleges, the degree of income segregation is comparable to income segregation across neighborhoods in the average American city. These findings challenge the perception that colleges foster interaction between children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.”
  • “Children from low and high-income families have very similar earnings outcomes conditional on the college they attend. The small gap in earnings outcomes between enrolled students from different socioeconomic backgrounds shows that colleges successfully “level the playing field” across students with different socioeconomic backgrounds, either because they select children of relatively uniform ability or because they provide greater value-added for children from low-income families”

This ongoing project is funded and supported by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Lab for Economic Applications and Policy (LEAP), Harvard University and the National Science Foundation among others.

For anyone interested in the role and impact of higher education in closing the income inequality gap and restoring the promise of upward mobility to American society, the Equality of Opportunity Project is definitely one to follow.



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