These universities are America’s engines of upward mobility—and they’re sputtering

The City University of New York system is a great place to start.
The City University of New York system is a great place to start.
Image: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
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Degrees from fancy schools do help catapult individual poor kids into the uppermost income bracket. Yet the most-efficient engines of American upward mobility are a slew of mid-tier public institutions like the City University of New York, California State-Los Angeles, and the University of Texas-El Paso according to a NBER working paper (registration required) published Monday (July 24).

The bad news is, according to their analysis, those engines are increasingly sputtering.

Access plus success

The study—whose co-authors include Raj Chetty and Emmanuel Saez, pioneering economists of socioeconomic inequality and mobility—focuses on each university’s “mobility rate,” the share of its students who come from the lowest 20% of the US income distribution and end up in the top 20%. This metric is a product of “access” and “success rate”—i.e. multiplying the fraction of students hailing from that lowest income bracket by the share who end up with incomes in the top quintile.

The “Ivy Plus” schools (i.e. the Ivy League colleges plus Stanford, Duke, and the like) boast the highest success rates among the universities analyzed, propelling three-fifths of their bottom-quintile students to that top 20% income bracket. But overall, they’re not the most critical forces driving upward mobility: Only 3.8% of Ivy Plus students are actually from the lowest quintile (in fact, kids from families in the top 1% income bracket are 77 times more likely to attend one of these top schools than those from families in the bottom quintile.). That means only 2.2% of Ivy Plus students come from the poorest backgrounds and end up commanding top salaries.

Compare that with the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Just over half of its students from that poorest bracket reach the uppermost income quintile—slightly less than the share of Ivy Plus students. However, 16.4% of SUNY Stony Brook students are from the bottom quintile—four times more than at the Ivy Pluses. That makes school’s mobility rate an impressive 8.4%.

Disturbingly, mobility rates at flagship public universities—like University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor—tend to be lower than the Ivy Pluses, in large part because their relatively small share of poor students. (To see how your own school stacks up, try this New York Times interactive.)

SUNY Stony Brook and other similar schools—CUNY, certain schools in the California State and University of Texas systems—are strong engines of upward mobility, the authors argue—they generate large returns for students from poor families. They’re also not as super-selective when it comes to measures like SAT scores as the Ivies or even some elite public universities (some, though, like Stony Brook, are highly competitive). Their social benefit is critical because they’re scalable, producing much higher returns on their investment in their students than more elite universities. The average annual instructional expenditure at the schools with the top mobility rates is $8,000 per student, versus $54,000 per student at the Ivy Pluses.

The engines of upward mobility are cutting out

Alarmingly, these engines have begun to sputter. Between 2000 and 2011, the share of students from poor families at high-mobility universities shrank 2.8 percentage points compared with other colleges.

Fraction of students whose parents are in the lowest income quintile.
Fraction of students whose parents are in the lowest income quintile.
Image: "Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility," Chetty et al. 2017

What’s driving this ominous trend? Most of these high-mobility universities are mid-tier public schools, note the researchers. It might be that budget cuts have forced these schools to up tuition and slash spending.

This sounds plausible. States have cut spending on public higher education by 18% per student, on average, since the 2008 recession, according to a study by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Tuition, meanwhile, has shot up by a third. CUNY—one of the leading upward mobility engines—is now a notorious example of that funding crisis (paywall).

Of course, private colleges have emerged from the Great Recession relatively unscathed. That hasn’t done much to help poor kids boost their incomes, though. With the exception of Harvard, the fraction of kids from the bottom quintile at the Ivy Pluses hasn’t much budged over the years.