Maximizing Mobility: Leveraging New Data to Help Low-Income Students Climb the Income Ladder

Published jun. 22, 2017

The story we tell ourselves about upward income mobility is unraveling. The majority of respondents to a New America survey felt that it is harder than ever to attain a foundational element of the “American Dream,” in which children will earn more than their parents.


But most respondents still believe another tenet of the American mobility narrative—that going to college creates upward mobility. While it is true that college graduates do better in our economy than non-grads, there is considerable variation in earnings from different college degrees. For low-income students in particular, not all college degrees are equally valuable. These and other recent findings about how college degrees contribute to economic mobility have implications for community colleges around advising, transfer, and institutional performance.


In What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors, Anthony Carnevale and his colleagues at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found more than a 300-percent difference between the median salaries of the highest- and lowest-paid majors. This suggests that a college degree can indeed be a ticket to upward economic mobility, but it can also be an expensive ticket to low-wage work—and, for some, significant debt.


Low-income college students typically don’t have the information they need to make informed decisions about choosing a degree that is likely to contribute to upward economic mobility. And community colleges, where a disproportionate percentage of low-income students enroll, typically do not have the capacity to help these students understand how their choices of programs of study might impact their prospects of upward economic mobility.


But a new and welcome source of information is now available with the release of the Equality of Opportunity Project’s mobility report cards for every college in America. The college mobility ratings are publicly available through an interactive online tool that provides an unprecedented level of transparency on the connection between education and earnings. These findings have important implications for both low-income students and community colleges.


Researchers at the Equality of Opportunity Project wanted to know which colleges in America contribute the most to intergenerational upward economic mobility. They used data from tax returns, student loans, and other sources to compare college graduates’ earnings to what their parents earned. The researchers constructed what they call a mobility rate—the fraction of students from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution who end up in the top fifth. According to the researchers, each college’s mobility rate is a product of access, the fraction of its students who come from families in the bottom-income fifth, and its success rate, the fraction of students who reach the top  fifth. 


Some of the findings from the analysis are what you might expect. Ivy League colleges have the highest success rate. The majority of their students, including those from families at the bottom-income fifth, end up in the top fifth. But surprisingly, there are a number of less-selective, mid-tier (according to Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges) public universities that rival Ivy League institutions in channeling students from the bottom to the top fifth while outperforming the Ivies in providing access to low-income students. These include campuses in the State University of New York system, City University of New York, University of Texas at Austin system, and the California State University system. Impressively, these institutions have a mobility rate that bests that of the Ivies.


So what do the findings on the mid-tier public institutions that have high mobility rates mean for community colleges?


Advising is critical at community colleges, where many low-income students are the first in their families to go to college and enroll without a clear sense of career goals or what they can expect to earn as a result of completing different types of credentials. But advisors spend most of their time helping students register and little time advising students on the different types of programs that align with students’ goals and that have a high probability of employment and upward income mobility. Could restructuring advising to focus on helping students select programs of study that are associated with higher earnings contribute to students’ abilities to climb up the income ladder as a result of completing college?


The community college transfer function is especially important to upward income mobility because, on average, Bachelor’s degrees have greater lifetime earnings than Associate’s. Over 80 percent of community college students aspire to a Bachelor’s degree. Transfer and articulation agreements are critical to making those aspirations a reality. Could increasing access to the mid-tier public institutions through transfer increase the prospects of upward economic mobility for students who begin their education in community colleges?


The Equality of Opportunity findings also raise the question of the degree to which community colleges are themselves engines of economic mobility. The researchers highlighted Glendale Community College and South Texas College for having high mobility rates. What are the institutional characteristics of these colleges that contribute to high mobility rates? Can these characteristics be replicated and adapted to other colleges?


The mobility ratings are one more tool in a growing set of resources that provide information on the connection between college completion and earnings. These tools can help both low-income students and community colleges make decisions that increase the chances that the credentials students earn will help them climb to higher rungs on the income ladder. More broadly, the ratings raise important questions that can deepen our understanding of what contributes to upward income mobility.