Office of the Chancellor

Top colleges should be catalysts for upward mobility, not reproducers of privilege

April 15, 2017

By Howard Gillman

Springtime marks the start of college acceptance season, when millions of anxious high school students check their mailboxes for the “Yes” that signals the next chapter of their lives.

Yet, many of the nation’s brightest students, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, will forgo this rite of passage and the college experience, despite innumerable studies demonstrating that higher education is the best path to better opportunities and economic status. And, in many cases, the colleges — not the students or their environment — are the roadblock. A surprising number of America’s top colleges and universities seem more dedicated to reproducing privilege than to creating life-changing opportunities for these disadvantaged students.

According to a recent study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, which analyzed millions of anonymous income tax and financial aid records, some of the nation’s most prestigious schools enroll more students from the wealthiest 1 percent of families than from the bottom 60 percent.

To make matters worse, colleges across the board do a lousy job of getting working-class and low-income pupils to finish. By age 24, only one in five of these students earned a bachelor’s degree, while nearly all upper-income students complete their education. This isn’t just a waste of brainpower and money. It damages the U.S. economy, widens the gulf between rich and poor, and goes against a fundamental mission of universities: to empower and expand opportunities for everyone.

It doesn’t have to be this way. According to the Equality of Opportunity Project study, a few schools have managed to crack the code, combining Ivy League-caliber educational quality with wide access to students of all backgrounds. They boast high graduation rates, and they dramatically boost the odds of a poor student going on to become a rich adult.

Among highly selective public colleges, my campus — the University of California, Irvine — is rated among the best in the nation as a catalyst for overall upward mobility, and for catapulting the poorest 20 percent of students into the wealthiest 20 percent post-graduation.

And we’re not an anomaly. Across the entire University of California system, within five years of graduating, students from low-income families drew higher average salaries than both of their parents combined.

Disadvantaged students who attend elite campuses outside California typically fare even better. Unfortunately, they are very few in number. Less than 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of the income barrel go to an upper-echelon university. Indeed, more than half of the kids from America’s lowest economic rungs don’t attend any college.

It should not be the case that my campus enrolls more Pell Grant students than does the entire Ivy League combined.

With a national unemployment rate of just 2.5 percent for college graduates, the importance of a bachelor’s degree for economic opportunity and well-being has never been greater.

Elite universities should examine their role in the country’s deepening economic divide and take steps to address the disparities. They’ll need help, of course. Federal Pell Grants and state-based aid such as California’s Cal Grant program are essential to making college affordable for low- and middle-income Americans. Stronger state funding of public universities is also key, considering how those schools provide more than 60 percent of all four-year degrees in the U.S. The return on these investments in terms of the well-being of our people will be extraordinary — and, unlike short-term jobs initiatives, the benefits will last a lifetime.

The evidence is clear that our higher education system has let down those who need it the most. Let’s ensure a better future for everyone by making our schools the engines of social mobility they were meant to be.