The Schools That Are Bringing Poor Kids Into the Middle Class

Strategies for recruiting and retaining low-income students aren’t particularly novel, though they can be tough to implement at scale.

Students in a lecture hall
Thomas Lohnes / Getty

The evidence is clear: A college degree is, in most cases, the key to more money and a more comfortable standard of living. But that pathway to higher earnings is more available to some than others: A lot of elite colleges do not enroll a lot of low-income students, and as a result they’re not boosting very many students from low-income households into the middle and upper classes.

Dozens of top colleges and universities have more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale than the bottom 60 percent, as The New York Times pointed out last year. And that’s a problem if colleges hope to escape the common critique that they are little more than a finishing school for the elite.

But there are institutions—a lot of them—that have strong track records of improving the socioeconomic fortunes of students. If higher education is supposed to be the great equalizer, these institutions—from community colleges to public regional four-year colleges like Cal State and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County—are the ones that are doing the most work.

Last week in Los Angeles, at the Education Writers Association’s annual seminar, I moderated a panel featuring a handful of people who are thinking a lot about the socioeconomic mobility of students, and more fundamentally, the purpose of higher education. The panel, which included Marvin Krislov, the president of Pace University; Dianne Harrison, the president of California State University, Northridge; and Allan Golston, of the Gates Foundation, had a few recommendations. Colleges should be actively recruiting and enrolling low-income students—and that means more than targeting ads to prospective students on social media. It means a commitment to going where they are—areas that a lot of schools do not typically recruit—and demystifying the process of going to college. Then they should be supporting students with resources when the students get to campus—whether it’s writing centers, generous financial aid packages, or simply empathetic academic advisors who perhaps came from low-income backgrounds themselves. And it is also preparing students for jobs after college and building relationships with businesses that ease the process of finding post-graduation employment for students, especially for those whose parents don’t have their own professional networks.

Pace ranks first among private colleges in catapulting its students from the lowest rungs of the income scale and into the middle and upper class, according to data from the Equality of Opportunity Project, a massive research undertaking on social mobility led by the economist Raj Chetty. “We know that there are a lot of ways in which people of privilege benefit from their college years or having unpaid internships or having the social capital to get certain jobs,” Krislov said. But colleges can fill those gaps, particularly for low-income students, helping students get jobs, or buoying them with programs that help them land paid internships with top companies. “We provide strong networks, not only through alumni, but through faculty and staff as well. And that way we help a new generation, a new, socioeconomically diverse generation, achieve the American dream.”

The suggestions from the panel aren’t particularly novel, though they can be tough to implement at scale. And, it’s getting tougher: Particularly as states continue to cut the budgets of many institutions of higher education, the schools with the most to lose are those best positioned to reach the students most in need.