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Can NJ Colleges Deliver ‘Income Mobility’ to Poor Students?

Some 66 percent of Garden State colleges help graduates climb from poverty to the ranks of the upper middle class

More than two-thirds of New Jersey colleges are better than average at helping low-income students earn high wages as adults, according to a study of college mobility.

In their report, “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility,” five researchers measured how many students were able to jump from the lowest income bracket (bottom 20 percent) to the top bracket (highest 20 percent) about a decade after graduating from college. They published their report for The Equality of Opportunity Project, a group of economists looking for ways to address chronic poverty. This latest report is an effort to show which colleges help the most children advance in income and suggests policymakers at the federal, state, and college levels use the data to reassess their priorities.

“Higher education is widely viewed as a pathway to upward income mobility,” write Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Emmanuel Suez, Nicholas Turner, and Danny Yagan in the report, released last month. “However, inequality in access to colleges — particularly those that offer the best chances of success — could limit or even reverse colleges’ ability to promote intergenerational mobility.”

They measured the percentage of poor students who were in college in 1999-2004 against the percentage of those same students who, as adults in their early 30s, are among the wealthiest earners. What they found were “substantial” differences in the mobility rates of American colleges, with much of that due to “large differences in access across colleges with similar success rates,” according to the report.

In general, the colleges with the highest mobility rates are “mid-tier” public schools. The highest rate was at Cal State University in Los Angeles, where nearly 10 percent of low-income students became high-income earners. Eight of the 10 schools with the highest mobility rates in the nation were public.

New Jersey’s rankings are a little different, with four of the schools with the 10 highest mobility rates private schools. At the top is the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a public school with an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degree programs. Its 6.5 percent mobility rate is the highest in New Jersey and among the top 2 percent of schools nationally.

Mobility rate is determined by multiplying the percentage of students coming from low-income backgrounds by the percentage of students who wind up earning high incomes.

“Higher education is an investment, especially for families from lower income brackets, and this data validates the value of that investment,” said Matthew Golden, director of strategic initiatives at NJIT. "We have a strong history of preparing graduates for success in an economy driven by technological advancement and innovation. All NJIT students develop the technological skills required for robust career success. Regardless of major, those students are in demand by recruiters across a broad range of business sectors."

Bloomfield College, a small, economically diverse private college, had the highest mobility rate of liberal arts college in the state: 6 percent.

“As a mission-driven, access institution, Bloomfield College has a long tradition of educating a student population largely underserved by higher education in this country,” said Adam Castro, Bloomfield’s vice president for enrollment management. “Most of our students are coming to us from the lowest economic quintiles. By moving them up two or more quintiles… we are essentially helping them move to the middle class. That will, in turn, give their children every opportunity to move to the upper class and have a profoundly positive affect on the family for generations to come. That, I think, is what a higher education is supposed to do.”

Of the 49 New Jersey colleges and trade schools for which The Equality of Opportunity Project had data, 35 had mobility rates exceeding the national average of 1.7 percent. Of those below that average, only two were four-year colleges: Princeton University and Centenary University. Princeton’s low mobility rate of 1.3 percent is more a function of the small size of its low-income student population — 2 percent, according to the data. Of low-income graduates in the study period, almost two-thirds were high-income earners in their 30s, the highest rate in the state.

That’s consistent with what the study found nationwide: “Ivy-Plus colleges (Ivies plus a few others – University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT, and Duke) have the highest success rates” but “students from the lowest-income families have the smallest enrollment shares at the most selective private colleges, both in absolute numbers and relative to comparably ranked public schools. Only 3.8 percent of students come from the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution at Ivy-Plus colleges.”

Hudson County Community College had the largest percentage of students with the lowest incomes – more than a third of its student body were poor. Its mobility rate of 4 percent was the eighth highest in the state.

That 4 percent rating is what, the report’s authors state, would be the expected proportion of low-income students moving into the ranks of the wealthy “in a society with perfect mobility.” The report concludes that “increasing low-income access to colleges with good student outcomes could increase the overall contribution of higher education to upward mobility.” It suggests that schools and officials at the state and federal level reevaluate a number of criteria, including admissions criteria, transfers from community colleges, and outreach efforts aimed at promising students before they begin applying to colleges to help channel low-income students to those with the highest mobility rates.

Officials at New Jersey’s successful schools say they do take steps to help their neediest students succeed.

At NJIT, the process begins with pre-college programs that introduce these students to STEM education, get them excited about those disciplines, and prepare them to succeed as undergraduates, Golden said.

“We also have a very strong Educational Opportunity Program that provides vital support services and mentoring during the summer before students begin their freshman year and while they are enrolled as undergraduates,” he continued. “Another important component is our outstanding career services office. Additionally, NJIT has established incredible linkages with industry partners, creating incredible opportunities for practical experience and exposure to potential employers.”

Castro said Bloomfield’s minority-majority population has “very high financial need,” with about seven in 10 eligible for federal Pell need-based grants. And about half are the first in their families to go to college.

“Many of them overcome a lifetime’s worth of hardships and challenges before their first day as a Bloomfield College student,” he said. “So, we try to practice what we preach; that because we are a small school they will have better access to people and resources than students at larger or more decentralized institutions. That includes our alumni network, trustees, community partners, and everything in between.”

According to Castro, Bloomfield takes the time to teach its students time management and other skills designed to help them navigate college and classes before getting into the more challenging coursework to prepare them for careers.

“I think we do a very good job at creating a solid foundation for our students,” Castro added, “and give them real experiences through internships and leadership opportunities that set them up for success post-graduation.”

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