Focus on Economic Mobility

Samuel L. Stanley says students, families and college counselors need to consider the future -- and not arbitrary rankings -- when evaluating colleges.

January 8, 2018

Each year, with college on their minds, high school students and their families begin to pore over websites, guidebooks and media surveys that aim to list their options in order of desirability. These rankings are based on several criteria, including subjective opinion. Readers are left to weigh this information against their own priorities, making a decision that suits their unique path.

As institutions of higher learning, we too must take note of these reports and weigh them appropriately with our own objectives. But the only way we can remain true to our purpose and achieve the goals we know to be paramount is if we manage in accordance with our mission and not arbitrary rankings.

One of the most important of our goals must be social mobility. It is at the very heart of American values that if you work hard and get a good education, you can achieve more than what your parents or their parents dreamed. When economically disadvantaged students receive an excellent education, it doesn’t just enhance their job prospects. It can propel them out of what otherwise might have been a permanent social stratification, affecting generations to come.

It is heartening, therefore, to see more attention given to universities as catalysts for upward social mobility, and opportunities to improve this outcome are better than ever. National data collection programs like the Student Achievement Measure and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System both now collect information that reflects a better picture of today’s less traditional student population. A recent study by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, titled “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility,” used de-identified IRS data to compare the income of college graduates to their parents’ income around the same age. This helped to identify schools that excelled at boosting graduates from the lowest quintiles of family income into the highest.

Still, we are faced with a clear challenge: How do you provide access to excellence for students who are less able to pay for it? The answer isn’t an easy one. Philanthropy is a large part of the puzzle, and producing successful alumni who are motivated to give back certainly helps. It is important to demonstrate the growing value of a university education. We can do this in part by learning from institutions around the country that publish the income information of their alumni. While maintaining individual privacy, some institutions -- including the University of Texas and the University of California -- are publishing hard data about what their graduates are earning and what education debt they are paying with it. This type of information has the potential to become a valued decision support resource, and for schools hoping to demonstrate their outcomes as a clear return on investment.

And while social mobility is one of the most transformative purposes of a college education, traditional rankings don’t tell us much about it. Nor do most colleges. In fact, rankings can tell us how many students are graduating on time, but not why some fall short of that goal. We know that economic disadvantage is a large part of the puzzle: The Washington Post recently reported that students whose economic status made them eligible for Pell Grants graduated at lower rates than their peers at an astonishing 97 percent of universities surveyed.

That gap doesn’t exist at Stony Brook University; between our Pell Grant recipients and their non-Pell counterparts, there is no difference in graduation rates. Our track record for increasing social mobility was recognized in that Stanford study, in which we were among the top five universities in the country for bottom-to-top quintile mobility.

A large part of this success can be attributed to running a successful Educational Opportunity Program. EOP was introduced into State University of New York institutions in 1967 to offer access and support to low-income, mostly first-generation college students. At Stony Brook, the program was given the name Advancement on Individual Merit and currently accepts about 200 students each year. A rigorous summer academy before first year sets them on a path of specialized mentoring and tutoring that serves students all the way to graduation. As EOP/AIM celebrates its 50th anniversary, its effect is seen across campus, beyond the students it directly serves; it has helped us to create a culture of high expectations and respect for the support needed to reach them.

There are many data points on which universities can be compared, but none carry the weight of having a proven ability to lift promising students into unprecedented socioeconomic heights. And if websites, guidebooks and media surveys that publish and promote college rankings really want to do justice for students and parents who use these tools to evaluate which school can best help access success, they should focus more on social mobility and less on peer sentiment, alumni fund-raising or anecdotal opinion surveys. We are educating students to thrive in the real world, and that’s why real-world outcomes should be our most important benchmark.


Samuel L. Stanley is president of Stony Brook University of the State University of New York.


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