The Impact of Comprehensive Universities on Social Mobility

In the aftermath of the recent scandal involving elite college admissions, higher education has become a lightning rod for criticism and calls for reform. Amidst this fervor, a newly released report by Jorge Klor de Alva for the American Enterprise Institute sheds light on the remarkable success of comprehensive universities in facilitating the upward mobility of their graduates.

Comprehensive universities, in essence, are institutions that cater to a large undergraduate population and offer various master’s and, in some cases, a limited number of doctoral degrees. Many of these universities were initially established as teacher colleges and are frequently situated in urban areas. While their faculty engages in research, it does not receive the same level of emphasis or external funding as research universities, resulting in heavier teaching responsibilities.

Most comprehensive universities are publicly funded, admitting a majority of applicants and catering to a more diverse student body in terms of age, ethnicity, part-time enrollment, first-generation college students, and socioeconomic backgrounds in comparison to major research universities or liberal arts colleges.

According to the American Association of State College and Universities, there are approximately 400 comprehensive universities that prioritize providing access and opportunities for education within their local communities and regions. Notably, they educate over 70% of all undergraduates enrolled in four-year institutions.

Using data from the 2017 Equality of Opportunity Project, Klor de Alva’s research examined the impact of these universities on their students’ social mobility. To assess this, he calculated “adjusted mobility rates” (AMR) for 307 universities, representing the percentage of students from the lowest income quintiles who progressed to the top two quintiles by their early 30s based on their respective earnings.

Key findings from the research include:

  • About 10% of students from the lowest income quintile families achieved a move to the highest quintile of U.S. household earnings by their early 30s, with over half advancing to either quintile four or five.
  • Another 14% of students from the next lowest income quintile experienced a similar upward trajectory, with 27% transitioning to the highest quintile by age 30.
  • Overall, more than half of students originating from the two lowest income quintiles attained placement in the highest two quintiles of household income by their early 30s.
  • Additionally, over 85% of students from the two lowest income quintiles demonstrated an increase in earned income of at least one quintile by their 30s.
  • Social mobility was influenced by the field of study, with universities producing more graduates in business-related majors achieving higher mobility rates.
  • Furthermore, a correlation of .60 was observed between six-year graduation rates and AMRs, indicating that initiatives to improve graduation rates at these institutions would yield significant returns.

While elite, highly selective colleges often dominate the public discourse surrounding higher education, it is the public comprehensive universities that assume the majority of the responsibility for educating students.

Comprehensive universities distinguish themselves from their elite counterparts by admitting a larger proportion of students, enrolling a greater number of Pell Grant recipients, ethnic minorities, and first-generation college students, and catering to more part-time and adult learners. Moreover, their tuition fees are typically a fraction of those charged by prestigious institutions, and they are responsible for training the majority of the nation’s educators.

It is imperative to consider these facts when assessing the value of higher education and acknowledging the indispensable role that comprehensive universities play in fostering social mobility for countless students, providing them with an opportunity to transform their lives through education, without resorting to dishonest means.

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