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Scholars Address Issues of Mobility in Higher Education

Strategizing around how best to address policy makers on issues of access, student success and the impact of higher education, four prominent scholars gathered at New York University (NYU) on Friday to share their research.

Dr. Stella Flores began Friday’s discussion, “The New Mobility in Higher Education: Does a College Degree Matter?” with some important details about her family background. Her parents were Mexican farm workers who were able to attend college at a time when tuition and grants made it affordable. They earned degrees and had professional careers, which enabled Flores to grow up in a household where a priority was placed on education.

Now, as the associate dean for faculty development and diversity, associate professor of higher education and director of access & equity at the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy at NYU, Flores brings a very human element to discussions on whether mobility, like what her parents experienced, is still possible.

Dr. Stella FloresDr. Stella Flores

At the gathering, three other scholars presented their research and discussed policy implications. They highlighted that in today’s world, different racial, ethnic and economic groups have different access to higher education. The bottom line, they argue, is that the federal and state governments need to invest in higher education because the data shows it will make a difference in people’s economic lives.

“Even if you’re a well prepared student, your odds are still so much lower for getting a college degree that we need to involve more sectors in education to make that last dollar work,” said Flores. “We have to be creative.”

Dr. Paul Attewell, professor of sociology and urban education at the City University of New York Graduate Center gave a presentation titled “The Value of an Incomplete Degree” where he provided a reanalysis of Dr. Raj Chetty’s data.

Chetty, an economist at Harvard, focused on the mobility of students who began in the lowest income group and were able to move to the highest income group. Attewell chose instead, to look at something more modest. The data, he said, showed that 44 percent of teens who began in the lowest group experienced upward economic mobility. Of those who experienced upward mobility, 46 percent never went to college, and even a percentage of those individuals experienced upward mobility.

There are also those who come to college later in life. Thirty-nine percent of individuals who enter college between the ages of 23 to 29 moved up at least two income levels, Attewell added.

“I wish we’d stop focusing on under-matching,” he said, pointing to studies that highlight the mobility of the small group of individuals who came from low-income households and went to highly selective institutions. “I wish we’d focus on two-year and moderately selective colleges. They’re creating the bulk of the mobility.”

Using data collected from institutions in Texas, Atewell said that students who attend college but don’t complete their degrees have a 20 percentage point greater chance of being employed than people with no college.

“There’s a payoff to going to college even if you don’t get a credential,” he added.

During her talk, Dr. Michal Kurlaender, professor of education policy at University of California Davis pointed out that California is a state with many public institutions, including 115 community colleges. Sixty-three percent of all high school graduates enroll in college and the majority of those students enter community colleges, she said. On average, students with an associate’s degree see an earnings increase of 25 percent.

Kurlaender said there is a significant misalignment between K-12 and higher education, which is why many students don’t successfully make the transition from a two-year to a four-year institution.

“Students who are less disadvantaged are more likely to transfer,” she said, noting that while community colleges are all open access institutions, the resources at each college vary greatly.

A key policy recommendation is to “increase the alignment between systems of education,” Kurlaender said, and end non-credit collegiate remediation and use high school testing to address issues in advance of college enrollment. She said that an increased alignment between community colleges and four-year institutions and strengthening formal articulation between these institutions is important so students don’t have to repeat course work.

“We are funding colleges both in terms of the percent at which they’re enrolling low income students and also we’re giving premiums for college completion,” Kurlaender noted. “That is the new lay of the land.”

Dr. Susan Dynarski, professor of public policy, education and economics at University of Michigan said that while 33 percent of young people are earning a bachelor’s degree, which is a historical high, differences based on income persist.

“Anytime anybody says to you, ‘Everybody is getting a BA. The market’s saturated. Too many people are going to college,’ it’s highly unequally distributed,” said Dynarski. “We’re not reducing inequality in BA attainment.”

Dynarski said the financial aid system is extremely complicated and criticized the complexity of the FAFSA. Sharing data between the IRS and the Department of Education would facilitate income verification, she said, pointing out that a sample test in which there was no FAFSA showed an increase in college attendance by eight percentage points.

“[FAFSA] complexity discourages people from applying,” said Dynarski. “In Michigan, I’m running an intervention where I push out information involving students…that basically says, ‘If you get in, you’re guaranteed tuition.’ It has tripled the application rate.”

Throughout Friday’s session, Dynarski emphasized the importance of simplifying the financial aid process, Kurlaender advocated remediation reform and Attewell said the math requirements at some community colleges thwarts the ability of students to progress onto four-year institutions.

“We learned a lot about other angles of social mobility we need to be thinking about beyond the individuals,” said Flores at the end of the program. “We have to really think about how institutions can not only commit more, but also be funded more to meet our outcomes.

“All these scholars have great evidence-based approaches to how to think about mobility, but more than ever again we’re in a sea of demographic change,” she added. “Institutions, faculty, state policy makers and boards of governors all have to really understand that it’s all hands on deck when it comes to social mobility. If we don’t pay attention, the whole country suffers.”

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