Higher education and social mobility

The overachieving underdogs

Sometimes, well-known premises lead to predictable conclusions. But not always. Occasionally, they lead to surprises—and even busted myths. Here’s one: The best job of helping low-income and first-generation students gain access to higher education and reverse the trend toward greater income inequality in our society is being done by wealthy private institutions willing to invest their part of their large endowments into the salutary project of providing more financial aid for poorer students.

That statement turns out to be true—but only half true. Yes, lower-income and first-generation students seem to have better outcomes when they attend private institutions, and particularly smaller private colleges where support systems and faculty engagement combine to create institutional cultures strongly centered on student flourishing.

But here’s the paradox: It’s not the wealthier institutions doing the best job of accomplishing this objective. It’s smaller institutions far down the endowment pecking order. The shattering conclusion might just be that there are some things—some very important things—that elite institutions are not, in fact, better at doing.

Let’s go back to the uncontroversial premises. Here are things I think I can probably stipulate without fear of great controversy:

  • Our society confronts a growing disparity in income between the very wealthy and the least well-off.
  • The uniquely American project of social mobility is no longer the easy or expected pathway it once was. The prospects for social and economic advancement are becoming narrower and more difficult find for lower-income youth.
  • Related to the problems of growing inequality and rigidifying social strata is a prospective, and deeply worrying, decline in our economic competitiveness in a globalizing world over the decades ahead. Our ability to remain at the forefront of innovation, technological prowess, and income generation rises and falls as a function of our ability to compete in economic sectors increasingly driven by nimbleness of thought and not either natural resource endowments or large-scale industrial production.
  • The best answer to all of these challenges—reversing the trend toward inequality in income and opportunity, revitalizing social mobility, and restoring our competitive preeminence in the world—is education, and particularly higher education.

So far, none of this is extraordinary. But from this point forward the picture becomes more complicated.

It would be reasonable to think that better outcomes for students are associated with greater institutional resources. And it is surely the case that the same trend toward a separation between the richest and the poorest observed in individuals and families in our society can be seen in the spread of wealth and poverty in our institutions of higher education. Most readers will be familiar with the series of recent analyses published by Moody’s showing the increasing concentration of endowment funds in a smaller and smaller percentage of institutions; at last count, of the top 500 best-endowed public and private institutions, the top 8 percent hold 66 percent of all invested funds.

This isn’t just a snapshot, it’s a movie. Over the five years from 2009 to 2014, the resources of the wealthiest schools grew at a rate much faster than those of middle- and lower-tier schools.

Yet while inequality between the wealthiest and the poorest institutions grows, the data show that the wealthiest schools by no means perform better at some key tasks that shape prospects of social mobility. These include promoting access to college opportunity for low-income and first-generation students; that this opportunity is made available at a manageable cost; and that their post-graduation economic prospects are improved by smaller debt loads.

Let’s get specific about this. Eligibility for federal Pell Grants is a generally accepted measure of the percentage of an institution’s overall student body coming from the lower tier of family income. Yet according to IPEDS data, Pell Grant students account for only 15 percent of all students at the institutions with the largest endowments—and 35 percent of all students at a cross-section of institutions, who, like mine, have endowments in the tens, rather than the thousands, of millions. The same disparity shows up in the overall cost of the undergraduate experience. Like many readers of these pages, I spend a great deal my time defending the very real costs of providing a high-quality undergraduate education. But I also know that the average cost at small private colleges—just speaking of the tuition and fees—stands at $29,173, while for the ten wealthiest institutions that figure is more than half again larger, at $40,713. Yes, these institutions have more resources to offset those costs through financial aid packages; but it is simply not the case that this tremendous differential in cost reflects an equal differential in the quality either of the educational or the social experience offered to students.

If those larger endowments are being used to help students make up for the differential in cost, it’s sure not showing up in the debt loads students carry out of college. In fact despite the vast (and growing) difference in the endowments of the wealthiest institutions, the debt loads of our graduating students look practically the same. The median debt for a Pell Grant recipient at one of the ten largest endowment schools stands at $19,940, while at my cohort of small private colleges it’s $21,076. (At my own institution it’s substantially lower.) And I haven’t seen any of those wealthier institutions sharing the risk with their students by providing access to loan repayment programs to make sure someone has their back if their job search runs into trouble—but we are, and we’re sharing that model with others, too.

Okay, so: · Not all institutions do equally well in assuring access, manageable cost, and smaller debt loads; and · The gap between rich and poor institutions is wide, and growing, at an accelerating rate. Therefore the best bet for addressing the problem of social mobility, and restoring the possibility of an upward path on the socioeconomic slope, is to expand the chances for these students to attend the wealthiest institutions. Right? Well, no. You’d think so. But on the evidence, you’d be wrong. That turns out to be the surprising conclusion from the boring premises. Yes, we need to revitalize our nation’s historic capacity to provide more than the hope, but the real possibility, of upward mobility. And yes, we have a vivid variety of institutional types in the higher-education sector—public and private, undergraduate and doctoral, rich and poor. But if we really are serious about addressing the dangers posed by the widening chasm of inequality to our future as a free, prosperous, and competitive nation, we might be well advised to focus resources with intention and purpose on the institutions demonstrating the best results at reversing that trend by revitalizing the real prospect of social mobility—and not just the best public relations strategies for talking about inequality. It turns out that those institutions best accomplishing this task may not be the most elite, the wealthiest, or the most influential in the corridors of power; but they are accomplishing a crucial social task, one at which they are just plain outperforming, in significant ways, far wealthier ones[ME2] .

Jeffrey R. Docking is the president of Adrian College and the author of Crisis in Higher Education: A Plan To Save Small Liberal Arts Colleges in America (Michigan State University Press, 2015).

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