The colleges where the American dream is still alive

The colleges where the American dream is still alive

August 15, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Elite universities love to market themselves as engines of upward mobility. Elite and egalitarian. And for low income students they do offer incredibly generous financial aid. I found out that for a family like ours, we wouldn’t have to worry about affording Harvard. I’m really grateful because I wouldn’t have been able to get here were it not for the amazing financial aid package I received. Thanks to some new economic data, we can now see just how good these colleges actually are at lifting students out of poverty. And when we do, the results aren’t what you’d expect. A group of economists looked at two sets of records: Income tax forms from the IRS and graduation data from the Department of Education. with all the identifying information taken out. They looked at 10.8 million people born between 1980 and 1982. The tax forms showed how much money their families made. And the researchers placed each person in a group based on that income. From the bottom 20%, whose families made about $25,000 or less per year, to the top 20%, whose families made about $110,000 or more per year. They looked at where each person went to college and how their position on the income ladder changed about 10 years after graduation. If you look at kids from the bottom 20% who go to elite colleges like Harvard, they do really well. Over half of them go from families in the poorest fifth of the American economy, to being in the top fifth by the time they’re in their mid-thirties. Same thing at Stanford, Yale, and Princeton. The problem is, these schools don’t let in very many kids from the bottom rung of the ladder. In the class of 2013 only 4.5% of Harvard students came from the bottom 20% of the income distribution. So, about a fourth as many people as you would expect if Harvard were representing the American population. Testing data show there are plenty of qualified low income students out there. They’re just not applying to elite schools. Many, many, many more people who were born into privilege and have wealthy families get to go to these places. Then there are colleges with the opposite problem, like Moultrie Technical College in Georgia. Thirty-four percent of their students came from the bottom rung of the ladder. So, it’s really good at access, but a very small fraction of them make it to the top fifth of the income distribution. But there are some schools who are good at both. Cal State LA, it’s a commuter school, it’s enrolling a lot, a lot, a lot of poor kids. Twenty percent of students come from the bottom rung of the ladder and half of them end up at the top rung. PACE University in New York. Which, does a little worse on access, Ten percent of its students come from the bottom rung of the ladder. But, well over half of them wind up in the top 20%. David Leonhardt at the New York Times refers to them as America’s Great Working-Class Colleges. And, I really like that saying that they’re not the famous ones they’re not the ones that get a lot of press coverage or get represented in movies. There’s no ‘Social Network’ about Cal State LA. But, they’re doing the work.