Completion of a college degree has long been associated with higher lifetime earnings, and many prospective students expect that their best chance for upward economic mobility lies in the classrooms of the most elite institutions of higher education. Much of our media and messaging reinforce the idea that the smartest, most successful people are those who attend or have graduated from such institutions. The message sent to prospective students is that, if you can gain access to these institutions (not easy for many), success is guaranteed.
The results of a new study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, however, suggest that while elite institutions provide increased chances of becoming rich as an adult, the largest share of students who move from the bottom to the top of the income bracket actually attended mid-tier, public institutions. The research explores links between college attendance and intergenerational mobility and finds that colleges rarely have both high rates of access to low-income students and high rates of postsecondary earnings success.
Using income (converted to 2015 dollars) from tax records of people born between 1980-82, Equality of Opportunity researchers calculated “access,” “success,” and “mobility” rates for each college in the U.S. that enrolled at least 100 students per incoming cohort. Here’s how they define each indicator:
- Access rate: Percent of students who were born to parents in the bottom income quintile (household earnings of about $25,000 or less)
- Success rate: Percent of students, among those born to parents in the bottom income quintile, who had earnings in the top quintile as adults (household earnings of about $88,600 or more at age 32-34).
- Mobility rate: Percent of students, among all students at an institution, who were born to parents in the bottom income quintile and had earnings in the top quintile as adults.
The pattern in North Carolina is consistent with these broader findings across U.S. colleges:
- Elizabeth City State University enrolled the largest percentage of low-income students (32.1 percent), but had only a small share of such students rise to the top of the income distribution as adults (12.5 percent)
- Duke University enrolled the smallest percentage of low-income students (3.2 percent), but had the largest share of low-income students rise to the top as adults (50.4 percent).
If we look beyond mobility into the topmost quintile of income earners, we see that Elizabeth City State University students had a 34 percent chance and Duke University students had a 61 percent chance of rising to the top 40 percent (household income of approximately $52,000 or higher). If we look even broader at those who make it from the bottom into the top 60 percent (household income approximately $29,000 or more), the chances even out to 71 percent and 74 percent, respectively.
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While it’s clear that the chances of becoming rich are higher at an elite university, if we look at odds of moving from the bottom into the top three quintiles, it is not necessarily the case that elite universities are the best vehicles for upward economic mobility or that they move the largest share of low-income students out of poverty. In fact, students who attended more elite institutions comprise a smaller share of those who made it out of the bottom than those who attended less selective colleges.
- 24 moving to the top 20 percent
- 29 to the top 40 percent
- 34 to the top 60 percent
Elizabeth City State University enrolled 107 low-income students with:
- 13 moving to the top 20 percent
- 36 to the top 40 percent
- 79 (more than double that of Duke!) to the top 60 percent
Despite the fact that Elizabeth City State University enrolled far fewer students, they enrolled more low-income students and more of these students rose to the upper 40 percent and 60 percent than Duke University. But, in looking at the extremes of access and success among low-income students, we are still missing an even larger point: low-income students who attended less selective, public institutions comprise a larger share of upwardly mobile adults. North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University had more than double the number of low-income students rise to the top 60 percent as adults (188 students) than Elizabeth City State University, as did Fayetteville Technical Community College (160 students).
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So, if you are able to get into an elite institution (and that’s a very big “if” for low-income students), they will likely offer you the best chance of reaching the very top. However, since postsecondary education is one of the primary vehicles for upward mobility, we need to be clear about which schools are facilitating these opportunities for more than just a select few. It’s tempting to see the success of low-income students at elite universities and look to them as models of mobility, but this outcome should come as no surprise given institutional and student-body access to relatively larger amounts of financial, social, and cultural capital. Instead, we should be taking a closer look at the mid-tier, public colleges that send the largest share of low-income students to the middle and upper income brackets, providing broader access to economic mobility–and with significantly fewer resources.
Considering the decline in public funding for higher education in recent years, we likely can’t rely on additional federal and state dollars to compensate for the resource divide between elite universities and mid-tier public colleges, but we can investigate what is unique to those institutions that are able to maintain both high levels of access and postsecondary success.