Path to Upward Mobility Through College Narrowing, Study Finds

Institutions of higher education reputed to provide low-income students with pathways to success are becoming less accessible to those very students, a report from the Equality of Opportunity Project finds.

Based on an analysis of thirty million students born between 1980 and 1991, the report, Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility (94 pages, PDF), found that the percentage of low-income students attending Ivy League and other elite colleges has been flat since 2000, while the share of students from the top 1 percent of the income distribution attending those schools has risen slightly. The report also found that roughly one in four of the richest students attend an Ivy League or other elite college, compared with less than half of 1 percent of those from the bottom fifth of the income distribution, while at thirty-eight institutions — including Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn, and Brown — more students come from the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the bottom 60 percent.

Although elite colleges and universities often promote their commitment to affordability by providing generous financial aid, some have focused less on expanding access to low-income families, the New York Times reports. "Free tuition only helps if you can get in," said Danny Yagan, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley and a co-author of the study. (In connection with the release of the report, the Times created an interactive tool that allows you to add your favorite colleges to the tables included in its article on the report.)

And while low-income students who attend Ivy League and other elite institutions have nearly the same odds of reaching the top fifth of the income distribution as their classmates from higher-income families, the number from those institutions that do so would suggest that colleges perceived as less elite actually may be better engines of social mobility. According to the study, the institutions with the highest mobility rates — calculated as the product of access (the percentage of  students who come from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution) and success rate (the percentage of such students who reach the top fifth) — were often mid-tier public universities like California State University, Los Angeles; Pace University; the State University of New York Stony Brook; Technical Career Institutes; the University of Texas, Pan American; and the City University of New York System.

The study found, however, that low-income students' access to mid-tier public institutions with the highest mobility rates has fallen sharply since 2000 and suggests that to achieve greater social mobility, those working in the higher education field should focus more on expanding access to colleges that admit large numbers of low-income students and have high success rates than matriculating a relatively small number of students at elite institutions. "[I]t may [even] be worth considering," the report concludes, "[making] changes in admissions criteria, expansion[ding] [the number] of transfers from the community college system, or outreach efforts targeted at promising students in primary school before they begin applying to college."