Can higher education fix its social mobility issues?

March 17, 2021

A new grant-funded program envisions colleges putting more skin in the game

By Ross Brenneman

Image licensed under Flickr Creative Commons from user hire sandy.

Among those who advocate for all students to attend college, one fact is dominant: Students who get a four-year degree are more economically successful than those who don’t.

And yet as noted by a 2014 memo from the Brookings Institution, while a four-year degree frequently leads to upward economic and social mobility, “the college payoff only accrues to those who finish a degree, and very few low-income people make it that far.”

USC Rossier scholars who study enrollment management believe a new plan of action is needed to increase accountability for colleges and universities in how they enroll and graduate low-income students.

The case for reform

While “college for all” has many proponents, experts say that the idea is easily undermined without broader reforms to non-cost barriers that hinder student success, especially prevalent for low-income, Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities.

Signs indicate the reasons for urgency:

Jerry Lucido, executive director of USC Rossier’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice (CERPP), says that the results of years-long neglect is made increasingly manifest in the news.

“If we continue to be a social engine that reproduces the current and widening income, education and power gaps in our nation, especially at selective colleges and universities,” Lucido says, “we will see further unrest politically, socially and economically.”

Even as the Biden administration has pledged to double Pell grants, Pell also has limitations, experts say.

“In retrospect,” says Donald Hossler, a CERPP senior scholar, “perhaps the biggest mistake made when the Pell Grant was created was that there were no accountability measures built into the law that required institutions enrolling Pell students to make sure they graduated at rates similar to non-Pell students.”

Improving beyond Pell

Backed by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, CERPP leaders have designed a block-grant program that would create a new public-private partnership between the federal government and higher education. In “good faith and partnership” with this new source of federal support, participating institutions will commit to “steady and sustainable progress” in the admission and graduation of low and low-middle income students.

The proposed program incentivizes colleges and universities to prioritize the allocation of their resources toward improving access and graduation rates of low- and low-middle income students, with funds going toward financial aid and student support.

Institutions would match federal allocations with their own funds—which would supplement, not supplant, current institutional spending. Accountability metrics are still to be developed, but would be instituted to ensure colleges and universities live up to their promises. CERPP is currently studying what eligibility requirements and funding formula strategies would be most effective.

“While our objective is to improve social mobility for these students, it’s important to note that our economy will depend more and more on an educated workforce,” said Robert Massa, an adjunct associate professor in USC Rossier’s Enrollment Management and Policy program, and vice president emeritus for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College. “It is a national imperative to increase the numbers of low income students who will continue on to college, graduate and contribute to our economy.”

Reform will take a lot of work, Lucido says.

One indication: In October 2020, the American Council on Education commissioned a survey of 246 college and university presidents about attitudes toward college admissions reform. The survey, led by Lucido, Associate Professor Julie Posselt and ACE senior research analyst Maria Claudia Soler, found that only half of the leaders of selective institutions indicated interest in reforming merit aid, even as need-based aid is a powerful lever for social mobility.

“Higher education can rise to this challenge, but not without financial help or altering the financial model and realities,” Lucido says. “There are far too many incentives for institutions to serve money and power—rankings, tuition-dependence, who pays for research and thereby controls the agendas—compared to the relatively few incentives to serve low- and middle-income students.”

Additional federal support is especially needed for moderately selective and open admissions institutions to help fund their efforts to increase the success rates of low income and lower-middle class students. These public and private institutions typically have the lowest levels of resources per student enrolled, Hossler says, “yet we hope that they will provide ‘the social escalator’ to upward mobility.”

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