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NYT on America's Great Working-Class Colleges

NYTSundayReviewDavid Leonhardt, who gave the Tate Lecture at SMU back in November, wrote an interesting op-ed in this past Sunday's New York Times, using a recent study that tracked students from nearly every college in the country and measured their earnings after they left campus. He argues that such colleges continue to do a strong job pushing students into the middle class and beyond, in spite of a challenging environment marked by state budget cuts, more unprepared students and high dropout rate.

He provides the following statistics, among others:

  • Among people born in 1980 who attended the City University of New York, 30% of the students were in the bottom 20% of the income distribution as children, but only 14% were at that bottom 20% as adults. 
  • "At City College, in Manhattan, 76 percent of students who enrolled in the late 1990s and came from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have ended up in the top three-fifths of the distribution."
  • "The equivalent number at the University of Texas, El Paso, is 71 percent. At California State University in Bakersfield, it’s 81 percent. At Stony Brook University, on Long Island, it’s 78 percent, and at Baruch College in Manhattan, it’s 79 percent."

For fun, the NYT has an interactive page where you can learn about the upward mobility at any college. For instance (I'm not sure what to make of the fact that exactly 67% of the students from Harvard, Lehigh and SMU come the top 20 percent, so the results are to be taken with a grain of salt),

  • "The median family income of a student from Harvard is $168,800, and 67% come from the top 20 percent. About 1.8% of students at Harvard came from a poor family but became a rich adult.
  • "The median family income of a student from Lehigh is $167,600, and 67% come from the top 20 percent. About 1.9% of students at Lehigh came from a poor family but became a rich adult."
  • "The median family income of a student from Southern Methodist is $198,900, and 67% come from the top 20 percent. About 1.8% of students at Southern Methodist came from a poor family but became a rich adult."
  • "The median family income of a student from University of Texas at Dallas is $89,800, and 40% come from the top 20 percent. About 2.4% of students at University of Texas at Dallas came from a poor family but became a rich adult."

Many students on what Leonhardt calls working-class college campuses don't resemble the typical Ivy League student. There, "students often work while they’re going to college. Some are military veterans, others learned English as a second language and others are in their mid-20s or 30s." OpenIDEO recently had a challenge about higher education, entitled "How might we reimagine the cost of college in the U.S. and how it's paid for". I didn't participate, but I think it's key to realize the difference between parents paying for their children's education, as is the case at most Ivy League colleges, and individuals paying for their own undergraduate education, as is the case in "working-class college campuses" with older students already well into adulthood. The unspoken assumption when parents pay for their children's education is that most of them have been saving for it since they've had two decades in the professional world to prepare for their kid going away to college. That's just not the case when a student is in his 20s or 30s, doesn't have a college degree yet, and his parents can't afford helping him pay for it (if they could, they probably would have sent him to college at age 18.)

Leonhardt also has impressive charts about elite colleges being packed with rich students. This helps explain why "working-class colleges have become vastly larger engines of social mobility." Yet, the importance of investing in public education to foster a thriving economy has become increasingly challenged over recent years, with sharp declines in state funding (the movie Starving the Beast is worth seeing if you haven't already done so, see my post here). Offering lower-income students a shot at excellence, social progress and increased opportunity is a critical goal for a nation that wants all its citizens, and not only the wealthy ones, to become the best they can be.  

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