We all know the list: Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Stanford. Every year, the university rankings come out based on measures of academic quality and, though the order might be slightly different, the names at the top remain largely consistent. Now consider the following list: Cal State University, Pace University, SUNY, Technical Career Institutes, University of Texas. Not as familiar or prestigious-sounding, perhaps. But what if the metric used to measure these higher-education institutions were no less important than reputation?
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Enter the Equality of Opportunity Project, an academic research group that uses data to find ways to improve social mobility. Following some 30 million students and drawing on a vast trove of records from the federal Treasury and Education Departments, the project’s researchers have landed upon a new measurement that focuses not on academic achievement but rather on an institution’s “mobility rate”—the share of a college’s student body that hails from low-income households and ends up as high-income earners.
It comes as no surprise that only a sliver of children from poor families attend super-elite colleges. As The New York Times summed up the project’s findings in a recent headline: “Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60.” But Equality of Opportunity’s researchers have found that low-income students who do attend an elite college go on to earn roughly the same as students from high-income families. In other words, given the right opportunity and, perhaps, the right education, people can rise out of poverty within a single generation. The eternal American dream.
This should be heartening news. And yet, over time, the possibility of social mobility—of fulfilling the dream—has eroded. The prospect that American children will grow up to earn more than their parents dropped from 90 percent for Americans born in 1940 to 50 percent for Americans born in 1985. As Raj Chetty, an economist at Stanford University and a founder of the Equality of Opportunity Project, put it poignantly, his study has been able to measure more comprehensively than ever before “the fading American dream.”
In part, this has to do with the fact that the share of students from low-income families who attend Ivy League universities (already minuscule to begin with) has barely increased in the past decade. The same is true at similarly elite institutions. Meanwhile, access at institutions where mobility rates (as measured by progression to adult financial success) are highest has fallen drastically. To emphasize: The prospects of low-income students to turn their fortunes around are dimming. That 90 to 50 statistic in a half-century is alarming in the extreme.
“The prospect that American children will grow up to earn more than their parents dropped from 90 percent for Americans born in 1940 to 50 percent for Americans born in 1985”
Which is why the research group’s founders see it as imperative to not only measure social mobility but also collaborate with institutions to help them understand which initiatives are working and which are not, and that will help them improve the current situation.
“We identify a certain set of institutions as engines of mobility and we want to understand why those schools look as outstanding as they do,” John Friedman, an economist at Brown University, and the project’s cofounder, said. “Is it their ability to attract really upwardly mobile students? Is it their ability to educate those students well? Most importantly, how can we take what’s working at those schools and try to build a scalable model of success so that all institutions have an opportunity to provide the same level of support to all of their students?”
As Friedman noted, “Having a system where a potentially great scientist can become a great scientist no matter if they’re born in a poor neighborhood—I think it’s incredibly important to make sure that we allow those talents to blossom and benefit society.”
Until recently, universities and colleges were hesitant to share information about their students—demographic information, progress reports, and such—which in turn led to problems of comparison. Which school was “better” and what does “better” mean? What is a better way? In years past, when information was not shared, how could an institution know which programs have worked in other schools and replicate them?
The latest study from the Equality of Opportunity Project, which used big data to offer comprehensive statistics on every higher-education institution in the country, has helped change this dynamic. Schools can now “see how they compare against other schools in a way that uses a consistent methodology,” Friedman said. “It lays everything on a level playing field and lets these specific institutions start to harness the power of these big data.” As a term, “big data” is perhaps self-explanatory, but it means using information to find trends and patterns—in this case on each individual student in each individual college. That’s how, by crunching the data with different metrics in mind, a new list of upwardly mobile schools has emerged.
What the study’s authors were not able to determine, even from big data, is whether higher mobility in certain schools was the result of selection, in that colleges with higher social mobility rates were better at recruiting low-income students with pre-existing talents, or whether upward mobility was the result of the “value-added” that students received by attending such colleges. Did the schools and their teachers make the students better, or did the schools appeal to students who were better to begin with? Therefore, the research is now focused on discerning the mechanisms that undergird their findings. The researchers want to “figure out how we can replicate that success in other institutions, in other cities, more broadly in America,” Chetty said.
Though the Equality of Opportunity Project team does not offer policy recommendations—it strives to keep its scientific findings clear of ideology—there is certainly a sense of purpose among its members that runs deeper than basic fact-finding. As Chetty said, “For me personally, as a second-generation immigrant, I think a lot of the frustration you see in America today is the growing feeling that the country does not live up to the ideal of the American dream.” He went on: “If you’re born to a low-income family, if you live in Appalachia or in parts of the Midwest, the opportunities today just don’t look as good as they did in the past and that’s eroding what America stands for. For me, this is one of the most central issues to think about both from the perspective of the country and from the perspective of figuring out how to improve human welfare on a broad scale—especially now.” He paused for a moment, certainly thinking about what he was engaged with as well as what he hoped would be the accomplishment, and added, “And to do so in a scientific way.”