Even Modest Upward Mobility Matters for Low-Income College Students

Fellow Policy Shop blogger Matt Bruenig has just put together a thoughtful analysis of Pew Economic Mobility data showing that someone born rich who does not earn a college degree will end up better off than a poor person who earns a college degree.

The born rich group here is made up of those whose parents were in the top fifth of all earners. The born poor group is composed of the bottom fifth of all earners. Bruenig makes the point that 25 percent of the "rich" children who do not earn a college degree will stay in that upper economic group throughout their lives. Meanwhile, only 10 percent of poor children who earn degrees will climb into that upper economic group.  As Bruenig sums it up:

You are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated...

Writing for The Atlantic, Matthew O'Brien takes Bruenig's analysis a step further. O'Brien suggests that American economic mobility is dying, and that our attitudes and expectations toward higher education --  as well as the ways low-income, first generation students attempt to pursue college -  may in some ways be helping to kill it. His point is that many high achieving low-income students sell themselves short and limit their mobility by not applying to elite colleges where they can get the generous financial aid and make the social connections they need to climb into the upper economic stratosphere.

As O'Brien writes:

This is how the American Dream ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper of elite school applications by poor kids. Like it or not, the Ivies and other top schools are our conduit to the top, and far too many low-income students who should be there are not.

O'Brien's essay is well measured, worth reading and offers good policy and practical suggestions for improving educational attainment for low-income students. 

But there is a conclusion that can easily be drawn from what Bruenig and O'Brien suggest that needs to be questioned.

Is the goal of increasing college access (and completion rates) for low-income, first generation students all about making them rich? Does it need to be in order to have college be worthwhile for this group? 

True, only 1 out of 10 low-income students who go to college end up among the richest Americans. But this is not to say that college is not an engine of mobility for the rest. The same Pew study shows that 47 percent of the poor kids who do not go to college remain in the lowest income bracket for their adult lives. In contrast, 80 percent of those poor kids who earn a college degree move up economically into the middle-income brackets. Add in the 10 percent who go on to be the highest earners, and a total of 90 percent of those poor kids who graduate from college experience economic mobility.

Moving 9 out of 10 kids out of poverty into the middle class or better is a good result, and continues to be a worthwhile goal. If you ask anyone who works directly with youth and college access issues, they will tell you the same. The prize is not just to move the highest achieving students into the upper economic echelons, it is much more basic: To move poor kids out of being poor and closer to a wider range of life options, financial and non.

Maybe it is not as glamorous to focus on enabling a young person to become a CNA (certified nursing assistant) versus becoming a CEO or Supreme Court Justice. But it is progress and a true accomplishment just the same.