Overcoming Obstacles to Mobility

Washington Watch is written by AACC’s government relations office.

Public colleges are lauded as the “workhorses of middle-class mobility” in a recent Brookings Institution report. Most of the adulation is aimed at four-year institutions. The analysis of the Opportunity Insights data revealed, according to the report, “that students who attend college – particularly a four-year college – are significantly more likely to experience upward mobility in adulthood, relative to their parents’ position in the income distribution, than nonattenders.” The reference to public two-year institutions was only in terms of their offering “good value for society.” 

Because the report’s focus is on middleclass mobility, the rate is calculated as “the share of students at a college who come from the middle quintile of the income distribution (access) and move up at least one quintile in adulthood (success).” The seminal report of Opportunity Insights on the role of colleges in intergenerational mobility, whose findings made a splash in 2017, used a more extreme measure of mobility from the bottom income quintile to the top fifth. Two community colleges made the list of top ten colleges and, with one exception, the others were public four-year institutions. The report used individual tax return information for students and their parents and the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard institutional information to generate college specific mobility report cards. 

No Success (Mobility) without Access

College cannot serve as a springboard for mobility for students who do not enroll in college. Whereas 92 percent of children from the top quintile attend college, less than half do of those whose parents’ income is in the bottom quintile. The percent of children from middle quintile families attending college falls somewhere in the middle increasing to 71 percent. Where students enroll is also associated with parents’ income. With each successive quintile, an increasingly higher percentage of students attend four-year institutions; of these, an increasingly higher percentage attend a private institution. About half of students whose parents’ income is in the bottom quintile attended two-year institutions (49 percent), slightly fewer attended four-year institutions (46 percent), and the remainder, for-profit institutions. The breakdown of their counterparts in the middle quintile is 43 percent attend two-year institutions and 55 four-year (40 percent public and 15 percent private, non-profit). In comparison, of the students whose parental income is in the top quintile, about half attend public four-year institutions (48 percent), more than twice the rate of students at two-year institutions (23 percent) and another 28 percent attend private four-year institutions.  

Farther to Go

The Brookings report shows that in the middle quintile, while the enrollment of public four- and two-year institutions is comparable, the mobility rate for the former is 48 percent, compared to 31 percent for the latter. But does this and similar findings definitively discount the contributions that community colleges make to mobility? Without a proper context and understanding of the methodology used to derive these findings, one might think so. One definition of mobility in Merriam-Webster is “the ability to change one’s social or socioeconomic position in a community and especially to improve it.” The ability to change is the lynchpin phrase. 

We already know that the ability of students from lower- and even middle-income families to change is handicapped. They are less likely than those from upper-middle and top income families to go to college, and those who do, are more likely to attend two-year institutions. There is a multiplicity of reasons why a disproportionate number of persons in these socioeconomic groupings attend community colleges rather than four-year institutions. Open admissions, community-based institutions are more accessible to individuals with fewer financial resources, those who may not be academically well-prepared, and those who have family obligations, which may include working, in addition to pursuing an education. Simply put, community college students are made up of a disproportionate number of Thursday’s children, in the old fortune-telling children’s nursery rhyme, and “have far to go.” 

One interpretation is that they will have a difficult path ahead. However, there is a more positive interpretation that portends that Thursday’s children will go far and experience a successful life. Both can be true depending on the perspective. 

Measurement Matters

The data on which the report’s results are based have certain parameters. According to an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recent report that examined the Opportunity Insights college report card data, the methodology used excluded one out of five colleges from its results. Other issues were brought up, including that the economic mobility results were skewed in favor of places with extreme inequality. One example was of a ranking exercise, in which the three states of California, New York, and Texas accounted for 75 percent of all high-mobility colleges, despite only 23 percent of higher education institutions being in these states. This and other findings prompted the authors to caution readers, particularly policymakers and the media, to view the economic mobility rates of postsecondary institutions with a dose of “healthy skepticism.” 

The authors found that many factors attributed to mobility ratings were out of the control of institutions. Rather than institutional polices, practices, and procedures, such factors as regional income inequality and local market demographics, could explain an institution’s mobility rate score. Furthermore, the definition of mobility matters. The Opportunity Insights team is cited as admitting that “even slight changes in the definition can lead to vastly different mobility rates for the same institution.” Community colleges fared somewhat better in the middle-class focused Brookings Institution report.  The AEI report found that “community colleges tend to make some of the largest moves (i.e., go the farthest) because they are less likely to succeed at moving low income students to the highest income quintile, but they do a better job moving low-income students into the fourth income quintile (students who go on to have earnings between $35,200 and $55,800).” 

Community colleges are not only the workhorses of economic mobility, but also engines of opportunity.

For more information, please contact Jolanta (J.J.) Juszkiewicz, director of policy analysis, at jjuszkiewicz@aacc.nche.edu.

About the Author

Jolanta Juszkiewicz
is director of policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.