America’s Political Economy: College, Inequality & Social Mobility Today

Amidst the Trumpocalypse very important stuff is getting lost. For instance, this dramatically illuminating, must read report for anyone interested in university education in the US, mapping role of the college system as a gatekeeper and promoter of social mobility. Its part of a broader project on social mobility and the “American dream” headed by Chetty (Stanford), Friedman (Brown) and Hendren (Harvard) on the effects of education, health and community on social mobility chances.

The headlines are staggering: there are more kids from top 1 % of income distribution at Ivy Leagues than from bottom 50 %.

At Princeton 50 % more from the top 0.1 % than from the bottom 20 %. And there appears to be little to no trade-off in terms of outcomes certainly at the quintile level i.e. at any given college the chances of producing a graduate capable of earning in the top 20 % are independent of what income they came in with. This isn’t true if success is measured in terms of graduates with incomes in the top 1 %, which appears to be strongly associated with family income.

Apart from the eye-watering details on the Ivy League,  what the data show is how varied the US higher education system is in terms of intake and its output. It highlights very clearly the huge opportunities for relatively low cost interventions that might transform the prospects for tens of millions of people … in some hypothetical better future.

There are a range of Colleges that do a fantastic job at admitting from across the income range. They have a dramatic impact on mobility. On this graph you want to be up and to the right-hand side i.e. high low income intake and high mobility from low income to high income.

SUNY Stony Brook, the orange dot in this graph, admits in a highly egalitarian fashion and generates dramatic mobility compared to the blue dot which is Columbia (where I work).

But within its class I am also delighted to see that Columbia does a very good job at what Ivy Leagues are very good at i.e. promoting very long range mobility from the bottom 20 % to the top 1 %. Promoting kids from the bottom 20 % to the top 1 % clearly requires the addition of a lot of cultural capital, which only the more elite colleges can easily provide.

There are huge opportunities for investing in the “best” models for promoting social mobility, which are the relatively low cost public colleges (and YES as a highly paid employee at an exclusive private institution churning out grad students who I hope end up similarly placed, I am embarrassed to be trumpeting this!).

This massive study is anchored on data that refer to 2000. The authors have done their best to update their results and unfortunately the trends are not good.

The efforts the Ivy League are making have made precious little difference to admissions. Admissions to the most successful mobility promoters are becoming less egalitarian. The good dots, i.e. the ones that are off to the right-hand side are moving leftward. Meanwhile the threshold to belong to the bottom 20 % has actually fallen from 25k to 20k as the bottom end of the US income distribution is squeezed.

New York Times did this good write up. Remarkable in many ways, but perhaps particularly striking for its uninhibited use of the term “working-class”.

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