The going theory today is that for our current economy to be at its healthiest, about three in five adults need to hold a postsecondary credential; which is to say, a degree or a vocational certification. Whether or not that’s a good thing or a blight of modern hiring practices is hotly debated, but good or bad, that’s the way our current structures work.
Colleges are enrolling and graduating more students than ever before, even pursuing the disadvantaged populations they’d previously underserved. But even in this environment, students from families at the top 20 percent of incomes will graduate at five times the rate of students from families in the lowest 20 percent. Something in many colleges and universities continues to stifle the upward mobility they should be providing.
It is this topic at the center of CLIMB, the Collegiate Leaders of Increasing Mobility research initiative, which held a conference in the University of Texas’s flagship campus. The conference was attended by economists from Stanford, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and many other heads of educational research.
The focus of the conference was research by economist Raj Chetty, presenting the research he co-authored earlier this year, which measured each college in the country on measures of what he called “intergenerational mobility,” in other words, how many of their students climbed income brackets.
Boiled down to their simplest, the results indicated that the more selective a college or university is in its application bracket, the smaller the upward mobility of its students. Colleges with nonselective (admit everyone) or minimally selective (admit everyone who achieves a few base criteria) practices had the best results with improving the earning potential of their students. Universities with highly selective practices (admit 3 percent or fewer of applicants based on competitive criteria) showed little upward mobility of income, even among their top graduates.
The topic bears more investigation, even though the results so far seem clear-cut. The Gates Foundation has pledged funding to continue that research.