Impressive Successes in Moving Up the Poor

January 21, 2017

President Trump continued promoting his dystopian vision of America in his inaugural speech on Friday,

The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

…..Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

At least on one front, education, his vision of the poor being left behind and “trapped” with few avenues for upward mobility is being disproved by data that are just emerging.

This blog has written (and published op/eds) numerous times about the success that many of California's universities—public and private—have had in admitting, nurturing and graduating socio-economically disadvantaged young people (Trump's “struggling families”). The data that we didn't have was how these students did after they graduated—was a college education a vehicle for upward mobility, or a salve for guilty consciences?

Well, the answer seems to be that a college education is changing the direction of kids' lives and fortunes—especially poor kids. This Sunday's New York Times will have a column by David Leonhardt in which he analyzes a study just published by The Equality of Opportunity Project with professors from Stanford, Brown and Harvard. They gathered data from virtually every college in America (including data on kids who didn't graduate) and looked at the socio-economic status of admits when entering the university and their earnings after college. The study found that “working class colleges” are,

deeply impressive institutions that continue to push many Americans into the middle class and beyond – many more, in fact, than elite colleges that receive far more attention. 

To take just one encouraging statistic: 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. These students entered college poor. They left on their way to the middle class and often the upper middle class.

The successes that the study chronicled, and Leonhardt reported on, are nationally based. But in California, in general, and Los Angeles County, in particular, the success and accessibility of elite universities and “working class” colleges is truly jaw-dropping. Our institutions are doing an impressive job of moving the disadvantaged up the ladder.

UCLA stands out as the model of accessibility and mobility. Its median parent income is the lowest among the nation's elite universities ($104,900) while its percentage of poor students (i.e. coming from families that make $20,000/year or less) is the highest in the country. And perhaps the key measure—it ranked number one among 63 elite universities in the “overall mobility index“—the likelihood that a student will “move up two or more income quintiles” after leaving college. It does all this while avoiding racial and ethnic preferences and maintaining its status as a world class academic institution with an international reputation.

Not to be outdone, USC is ranked 4th nationally among elite universities in the “overall mobility index.”

If a student doesn't qualify for a UCLA or a USC, there are in California—and especially in LA County—multiple alternative opportunities for moving up. The study found that the Cal State Universities in Los Angeles County alone advance more students from the bottom fifth of income distribution to the top three fifths of earners than all the Ivies, University of Chicago, Duke, MIT and Stanford combined. The Cal States in LA County moved up 1,531 students from the class born in 1980, while the Ivies plus moved up 535.

Cal State LA is among the most successful colleges of all kinds nationwide in moving students from the bottom forty percent of earners to the top forty percent of earners, while Glendale Community College had among the highest upward mobility rates of any school in the country—no matter the school's ranking.

The significant fly in the ointment, and the irony of President Trump bemoaning the “young and beautiful” being deprived of knowledge, is that public institutions of higher education are being funded less and less. As Leonhardt points out, “state funding for higher education has plummeted. It's down 18 percent per student, adjusted for inflation, since 2008.”

We'll soon see how much he truly cares about “the struggling families all across our land” and “the mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities” when offered evidence that they can move up the ladder of economic success but it won't happen without funds to maintain and sustain those “ladders” across the country.

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