Higher education is the key to economic mobility in America. A recent study with unprecedented access to individual and family incomes has proved the case for this proposition beyond a reasonable doubt.
The study done for the Equality of Opportunity Project rated every college in America on how well they did in improving their students’ income after their college experience, whether they graduated or not, compared to their families’ income before they entered college.
The top 10 colleges with the best track record of moving students from families in the bottom 20 percent of all incomes in America when they entered to individual incomes in the top 20 percent when they left included three public colleges in California.
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Cal State Los Angeles had the highest “Mobility Rating” of any college in the country, moving almost 10 percent of its student body from the bottom to the top levels of income after their college experience. Glendale Community College ranked seventh, moving 7 percent of its students up the economic ladder, just about tied with the performance of the City University of New York. Rounding out the top 10 of mobility engines was Cal State Polytechnic University’s Pomona campus, where 6.8 percent of all students from the lowest income quintile ended up in the top quintile after taking classes there.
The UC system’s results also earned it some bragging rights. UC Berkeley moved a higher percentage of its students whose family incomes were in the lowest 20 percent to the top 1 percent of incomes than any other elite college, as the study’s authors called them, in the country. And UCLA had the highest percentage of enrollment of students from the lowest quintile of incomes than any other such university in the country, even though their post-graduation income success was not as great as some others.
But the real stars of the report were what the researchers call “working class colleges,” such as Cal State University or community colleges, that earned their high marks by having the most success with the greatest number of students from lower income families.
How did these colleges achieve this outstanding performance? It wasn’t by spending more money than elite colleges. The average per student instructional expenditure at places like Stanford is $87,100. By contrast, the average per student expenditure for working-class colleges that were able to achieve Ivy League levels of completion was only $24,600, or less than a third of what elite schools spent.
Overall, the study demonstrated that places such as Cal State and community colleges were contributing the most to our state’s need for economic mobility by providing the broadest access possible within their unique academic roles and at a much more reasonable cost.
To rev up the state’s economic mobility engine, we need many more of California’s families to gain access to a higher education experience. Today, many families think they can’t afford college for their children, even though they know, as this study shows, that it is key to their economic success. But experience also shows that when states eliminate that worry by making a promise that tuition will be free, enrollment rates soar. For instance, in Tennessee in the first year of its Promise scholars program, which makes all of the state’s two-year institutions tuition-free for high school graduates, enrollment in the community colleges rose 24.7 percent.
Now that we have incontrovertible data showing that going to college is the key to upward mobility and that we know how to do it with reasonable levels of expenditures, California should enact a Promise program to make tuition free for two years at Cal State or any of our community colleges. Without spending very much money at all, such a program would open the floodgates of economic opportunity to families throughout the state and provide California with the workforce it needs to remain competitive in the global economy.
Morley Winograd is president and CEO of Campaign for Free College Tuition. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This op-ed was written in association with Community Advocates Inc. of Los Angeles.