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The Importance of Considering a College’s Effects on Social Mobility

Abigail Anderson

Written by Abigail Andersonon February 11th, 2021

I joined College Coach after working in independent school and college admissions. At the collegiate level, I evaluated thousands of applications and managed more than 20 student workers and 200 alumni interview volunteers. I recruited in, and read applications for, multiple domestic and international recruitment territories, including all of New England and the Mid-Atlantic, Europe, and the Americas. I also worked with and evaluated transfer applicants. Committed to increasing college access and demystifying the college application process, I collaborated with colleagues across institutions to develop free, accessible programming for high school juniors wanting to jumpstart the application process and improve their essay skills. My passion has always aligned with working directly with high school students; I started my career in admissions at a highly-selective all-girls’ boarding school. While there, I recruited students throughout New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and California. I oversaw multicultural and first-generation student recruitment, participated in both admission and financial aid committees, and assisted in residence hall management.
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by Abigail Anderson, former admissions officer at Reed College There is a commonly shared belief in the United States that going to college will improve a student’s quality of life upon graduation—that the graduate will certainly earn more money, have an increased quality of life, and perhaps even live ‘better’ than their parents or grandparents before them. And this belief honestly makes sense, given so much of the history and mission of higher education in this country! However, while for many college attendance is a stop on the path to achieving the American Dream, certain colleges and universities do a much better job than others at improving life (or social mobility, as academics would call it) for their students. Which schools fall into this group, though, might surprise you! At first consideration, one might think that the most well-resourced or prestigious colleges would be in the best position to better lives—but the problem is that they don’t typically admit large numbers of students with a lot of room for social mobility. In work done by Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Opportunity Insights, researchers found that, “children with parents in the top 1 percent [of the income distribution] are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy-Plus college [Ivy League colleges, University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT, and Duke] than children with parents in the bottom 20 percent.” So which schools are really helping students from either underrepresented and/or disadvantaged backgrounds dramatically increase their social mobility? Here is a geographically diverse sampling:
  • City College of New York: CCNY was the first college in the City University of New York system and has always been renowned for increasing access to high quality education and engendering social change. 56.3% of CCNY students come from low-income families; more than 50% of CCNY students will move up two or more income quintiles after graduating.
  • California State University, Los Angeles: Located in downtown LA, Cal State LA is a federally designated Hispanic-Serving institution, Minority-Serving Institution, and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution. It is well-known for its programs in service to its community, and especially recognized for its engineering and business majors. At Cal State LA 64.5% of all students come from low-income families; 47% of their graduates will move up two or more income quintiles by age 35.
  • Texas A&M International University: This Laredo-based branch of the Texas A&M system is home to a diverse range of well-regarded programs, including communication disorders, criminal justice, kinesiology, education, and mathematics. A Hispanic-Serving Institution, TAMIU is also home to 11 NCAA Division III sports teams. Sixty-three percent of freshmen are Pell eligible.
  • Florida International University: Ideal for a student looking for a big campus in an urban setting, Miami’s FIU is home to a multi-cultural student body. Business, management, and marketing are the most popular majors, but you’ll also find a large portion of students studying psychology, biology, and communications. Graduates can expect an average debt of $18,000.
  • University of North Carolina, Pembroke: One of the most notable things about this location of the UNC public university system is the fact that American Indians represent about 15% of the student population. The campus hosts an American Indian Studies major, as well as The Museum of the Southeast American Indian. For in-state students, tuition runs to just over $7,000 per year.
  • Metropolitan State University: Offering everything from certificates to doctoral degrees, St. Paul, Minnesota’s MSU offers an intimate learning experience, with just under 7,000 undergraduates. Nursing and business are by far the most popular majors at this campus that champions adult learners and non-traditional students seeking an education in order to enrich their job and earning opportunities.
If you want to learn more about schools’ social mobility outcomes, there are two highly respected data resources considering social and economic mobility: CollegeNet’s Social Mobility Index is the more wonk-ish of the two resources. When you enter the site, you’ll be greeted with a long, academic, and math-laden description of how the researchers came to create their ranking system. Know that, at the end of the day, the SMI is meant to “measure the extent to which a college or university educates more economically disadvantaged students (with family incomes below the national median) at lower tuition and graduates them into good paying jobs…Simply put, a school can most dramatically move itself upwards in the SMI rankings by lowering its tuition or increasing its percentage of economically disadvantaged students (or both).” When you do eventually scroll through all that explanatory text will you find the SMI rankings. It’s easy to search for a particular institution using the search bar, and the basic data shared in the ranking table is really interesting (including metrics like average debt, percent of low income students, tuition rates, and median early career salary). Opportunity Insight’s Mobility Report Cards are hosted by the New York Times’ The Upshot project. This site is much more interactive and, quite frankly, fun to dive into. Aside from perusing their “Top Ten” lists for social mobility and access, users can also type in the name of a particular institution to learn more about its economic diversity, economic mobility, segregation, and outcomes. Users can learn how alumni from that institution fare later in life in terms of average earnings and marital status, as well as how the institution compares with its peer schools and in the larger national landscape. It is particularly interesting to scroll all the way to the bottom of an institutional Mobility Report Card to see how access to the institution has changed over time—is this a school that’s working to increase access, or is it stagnant (or worse, declining)? College Application Prep 101


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