A new series examines colleges’ role in social mobility. Instead of acting as a leveler, higher ed often reinforces economic differences.

A Rickety Ladder, at Best

Karin Fischer has been writing about higher ed’s role as an engine of mobility for many years now (I’m not sure how much she appreciated being reminded that it’s been 14 years, for example, since she and I worked together on a Growing Divide series for The Chronicle of Higher Education).

She has a new story out this week about the topic. If college is a ladder to the middle class, it remains a pretty rickety one, she concludes. Instead of acting as a leveler, higher ed often magnifies economic differences and reinforces them.

Her story kicks off a yearlong project at The Chronicle of Higher Education to examine the role that higher ed plays in social mobility. It’s funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

What’s Changed

I asked Karin what’s changed since she’s been reporting on this topic. Here’s what she told me:

Having more data is depressing but also galvanizing. There’s so much more data now, and it all reinforces a disturbing and negative picture of just how many barriers there are and how much is broken. So, in some ways, Karin says, that makes the problem seem even more intractable.

At the same time, she sees how all this new data has moved more people to act. There are a wider range of individuals and organizations, researchers and policy analysts, worried about inequity now than before, she says. Data from Raj Chetty at Opportunity Insights, in particular, Karin says, has been incredibly important in focusing broader attention on education’s role in mobility. It’s also brought more complexity to the discussion, giving us more information about things like how geography matters and just how much individual colleges help or not.

The conversation has gotten richer. How people are analyzing and defining mobility is changing, Karin says. Before, this all seemed like a discussion framed around the question: What’s the value of college? A lot of the information we had was about people’s jobs and earnings after graduation.

Now, with more data and research, it’s become a richer conversation, focused more on asking: How are people going to have a better life, and how does college play a role in that? Researchers and policymakers are thinking about the stakes of inequity more holistically, how it matters for getting a better job, yes, but also for how it affects health and how long you live.

The Pell Grant is broken. One statistic that stood out in Karin’s story was this: When the Pell Grant was enacted, in 1965, it covered nearly 80 percent of the cost of attending a four-year public college. Now it covers barely 30 percent. What it used to mean to people, Karin says, is just not what it means now.

Focusing on fixing this one thing might make a significant difference, she says. But what that would take highlights another issue. The problems of inequity are so complex, many actors and systems have to be involved for big change to happen. Making the Pell Grant more powerful again would require a series of coordinated decisions from leaders at the federal, state, and institutional level that would put more federal dollars toward the grant, put more state money toward colleges, and hold down tuition.

Now What?

This isn’t to say things are hopeless. Karin also wrote about three colleges that are helping students climb the economic ladder. And, she says, just as there are many factors that have entrenched inequality, there are also many ideas that people can try, and are trying, to intervene. “The answer,” she writes, “is yes, and — and more and more and more.”

— Sara Hebel

P.S. When Karin’s not writing about social mobility, she’s tackling the changing relationships between American colleges and the world. Get latitude(s), her weekly Open Campus newsletter, here.


In a Homecoming Video Meant to Unite Campus, Almost Everyone Was White

The video was created to show off the University of Wisconsin. Instead, it set off a furor, and a reckoning over what it means to be a black student on campus. (The New York Times)

Should Colleges Really Be Putting Smart Speakers in Dorms?

Administrators say installing listening devices like Alexa in student bedrooms and hallways could help lower dropout rates. Not everyone agrees. (MIT Technology Review)

Shaunta Smith talks about living at Haverstock Hills, 5619 Aldine Bender Rd., Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, in Houston. Prairie View A&M University is partnering with Haverstock Hills, a low-income apartment complex that has been notorious for crime and drugs, in hopes of creating a pathway to college for youth. The university will offer a range of services to the community, much of which will be directed toward students and juveniles, including college prep programs, family empowerment programs and support groups for parents, health awareness and services that address juvenile delinquency.

Prairie View A&M Partners with Troubled Housing Complex to Create a University Pipeline

Prairie View A&M University has teamed up with Haverstock Hills, a Houston affordable apartment complex, to build a support system and a pipeline for its residents. (Houston Chronicle)

Recommendation Corner

Scott: Two holiday gifts that I devoured over the break and recommend for those of us who have New Year’s resolutions to read more books:

  • Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. The germ of the idea came during an interview with Zadie Smith about autobiographical novels: “I want to write a book about the kind of stepmother I don’t want to be.”
  • Whiskey When We’re Dry, a 2018 novel by John Larison. The back cover describes it as “Mulan meets Deadwood.” That’s exactly right. You’ll keep turning the pages.

Sara: And if you’re looking for a board game that successfully entertains a big group, with lots of ages and personalities, I recommend One Night Werewolf. You learn a lot about the art of persuasion and the kinds of storytellers your nieces and nephews can be.

What’s Ahead

Thanks so much for all of your support during our first-ever fundraising campaign. With your help, we hit our goal of $25,000 and gained more than 120 new donors.

We’re excited about 2020. Here’s some of what we’ve got planned:

  • More newsletters. Look for an announcement on that front next week.
  • Our first local reporters. Our collaboration with Chalkbeat in Colorado will expand coverage in that state. And we hope to announce other partner newsrooms soon.
  • Training for campus journalists.
  • Another road trip to talk with Americans about the role college plays in their lives.
  • Later this month, Andrea Klick, our first intern, joins the team.

Please forward this email to other people you think would be interested. They can sign up to get their own copy here.