They say that education is the great equalizer.
The Equality of Opportunity Project, led by Stanford economist Raj Chetty (cue Mugatu: That Raj Chetty’s so hot right now!) has provided a tremendous dataset to help us test this axiom. The team assembled data from 30 million college students, demonstrating how America’s colleges and universities contribute to income mobility.
The resulting report focuses on success as the frequency with which colleges move students from the bottom income quintile to the top. This combines a measure of access (share of students in the bottom quintile) with a measure of success (portion of those students starting in the bottom quintile who are able to reach the top). This is a reasonable approach, but not the only one or, necessarily the best one. Many elite universities (Ivy League and similar) score well on the success measure. They specialize in sending a narrow, already high-achieving group of students into the top income bracket. Those elite universities universally score quite low on the access measure. When the Chetty team combine those two score, the elite universities are graded middling or worse.
By contrast, some public colleges and universities have 30% or more of their students coming from low income families. Most of them, however, send a relatively small share of those students into the upper income brackets. South Texas College, for example, draws 52% of its students from the lowest income quintile. Not surprising for a small college in impoverished Hidalgo Texas. Of those low-income students, only 13% are able to advance to the top quintile.
While both measures have an important story to tell individually, I wonder about the value of conflating access with efficacy. Doing so is meant to allow for a meaningful comparison between highly selective schools and public colleges and universities that, by design, do not have admissions policies designed to weed out 90% or more of their applicants. Ultimately, the approach is rife with selection bias and is grading schools on a measure that few have much control over. With the exception of the most selective universities, this measure of access is not primarily a function of policies, outreach strategies, or other administrative decisions. Rather, the makeup of the student body is defined by the community they serve as well as the ability of the local high schools to graduate students with the basic qualifications needed to proceed to college.
I also wonder about the value of focusing on whether colleges move students from the bottom quintile into the top. Has a college failed if it helps its graduate move from poverty as a child to the middle class? Is our goal affluence or bust? Perhaps those Ivys should consider it a failure, but most college should not. In fact, in terms of sheer arithmetic, doing so is effectively setting up a requirement that everyone be above average, which usually only works out in Lake Wobegon.
I prefer to focus on the share of low income students that are able to move into the middle class or higher (which I am defining as the top two quintiles) and make more narrow comparisons among comparable colleges and universities. Is it truly meaningful to compare Columbia University with State University of New York (SUNY) Stony Brook? Would a low income 18-year-old chose Stony Brook over Columbia? Should they? Despite SUNY scoring nearly three times as well by Chetty’s measure, the answer is no. If accepted, from a future earnings perspective, any student should jump at the opportunity to attend any of the elite universities. Columbia scores poorly on Chetty’s measure, though because they admit relatively few low income students. Instead, I would offer that it is more meaningful to compare Columbia to its Ivy League companions and Stony Brook to other SUNY campuses and perhaps other comparable state universities.
So how does Sacramento fare? Our flagship university, Sacramento State, excels, 22nd among the 375 comparably “selective” public universities in the country and second among the non-technical CSUs. Sixty-four percent of low income Sacramento State students were able to move up into at least the middle class, edging out San Diego, Fullerton and Long Beach and trailing only San Jose (69%). This ranks better than a number of elite universities, including Duke, Amherst and UNC Chapel Hill, as well as two UCs, an outcome that is particularly impressive given Sacramento’s moderate income levels. Overall the top of these rankings is dominated by technical schools, CSUs and SUNY campuses.
So would a low income student be better off attending Sacramento State than Duke? Individual experiences of course vary, but according to Chetty’s class mobility data, yes, the average low income student will earn more money after attending Sacramento State than Duke University, at a fraction of the cost.
Looking across the causeway, Davis also represents well. With 71% of low income students finding their way into the middle class or better, the Aggies are third among the UCs, but ahead of both the Bears and the Bruins.
What is most impressive, though, is that unlike Columbia, Duke or even UC Davis, Sacramento State (and the CSU system, overall) is lifting the prospects of low income students, regardless of SAT scores. Given that most of these students stay in the region, the success of Sacramento State is not just helping these indviduals, it is lifting the economy of the entire region.