Economic Mobility Through a Different Lens

Published By
Inside Higher Ed
Published On
June 15, 2022

California State University, Los Angeles serves 24,223 undergraduates, 69.8 percent of them Hispanic and 68 percent of whom are from low-income families or backgrounds.

The university used funds available through the CSU system’s Graduation 2025 Initiative, which was launched in 2015, to start a student success program that offers free or reduced tuition and course fees, expanded academic advising and counseling, mental health assistance, and financial help for emergency expenses, including for food and housing. The university also created a California Promise program, with college completion incentives, such as as early registration privileges for key courses and access to advanced academic advising, for first-year students who pledge to graduate in four years.

The institution’s six-year graduation rate rose from 36 percent for first-year students entering in 2007 to 52.1 percent for those entering in 2015, the most recent figures available. The four-year graduation rate for students entering in 2007 jumped from 6.8 percent to 21.1 percent in 2017.

University administrators' targeted efforts to improve student performance, increase academic outcomes and help students graduate and prosper postgraduation landed the university at the very top of a list of the top 10 institutions that provided students with the most economic mobility, according to a new index that used different metrics to rank colleges and universities based on how well they serve low-income students.

“If you’re a policy maker, if you’re a decision maker, if you’re trying to get the biggest bang for your buck, this is where you want to invest your resources,’’ said José Gómez, provost and vice president of Cal State L.A.

The authors of a report released earlier this year sought to measure those very factors and designed the new Economic Mobility Index, which looked at low-income students and ranked the colleges and universities that provided them the most economic mobility based on the number of such students the institutions enrolled and the return on investment, or ROI, they provided for students. The top 10 of those colleges were Hispanic-serving institutions, or HSIs, in California, New York and Texas—states with large Hispanic populations—according to the report by Third Way, a public policy think tank.

Economic mobility has long been considered a good measurement of the postgraduation financial status of students. The economic outcomes for graduates of Ivy League and other selective top-tier private and public universities are unsurprising; those students tend to do well even if they’re first-generation college students or from low-income backgrounds. But what about the great majority of students, many of them Hispanic or Black, who attend midrange or nonselective institutions and also end up better off after graduation but whose in-college and postgraduation experiences don’t fall under the traditional metrics used to measure economic mobility? The report asked and answered those very questions using the new index.

Deborah Santiago, CEO of Excelencia in Education, an organization that advocates for Latino student success, said the findings outlined in the report reflected what students from low-income backgrounds needed and got from colleges to succeed academically, and how they made out once they complete/ed college.

She noted that the report looked at “inclusive data, instead of exclusive data,” which she says is the usual lens through which economic mobility is usually framed. (“Above and beyond enrollment, what do those exclusive universities do to actually serve those students?” she asked.) More importantly, the report closely evaluated what the HSIs did to serve students, Santiago said.

“Students who get into the Harvards and Yales are going to do well anyway, because the hardest part was getting in, because they are so selective,” she said. The Third Way report shines a light on the institutions serving a different mission and the need for a different definition of economic mobility, and different metrics for gauging it, such as whether the less prestigious colleges have strong affordability and financial support systems in place and are intentional about addressing the unique needs of first-generation and low-income students.