Social mobility (as conventionally understood) is not a very good way to assess higher education.
There, I said it. Probably no one will notice but I will explain why just in case anyone objects.
Before getting into specifics, let me attempt to immunize myself from being seen as a jerk. I do
think inequality and social reproduction in higher education is a problem. A big one. I’ve written about it, including in these ungated venues here
. I’m not trying to do some devil’s advocate hipster-contrarian thing.
We need more social mobility. We need less social reproduction and more social mobility. Higher education has a role to play. I just don’t think the way we normally talk about social mobility is a good measure for assessing higher education.
What do I mean by social mobility?
When I say social mobility, in this context, I actually mean intergenerational income mobility - that is, where you sit on the income distribution relative to your parents. Say my parents were in the bottom 20% of the income distribution, but as an adult, I am in the top 20%. In that case I’ve experienced substantial intergenerational income mobility.
Income mobility is a commonly used measure and it’s what most people mean when they say “social mobility.” Income mobility is the measure Raj Chetty and the Opportunity Insights project use in for their Mobility Report Cards
for colleges and universities in the U.S.
So when I say social mobity is a not so good measure of higher education performance, what I mean is that intergenerational income mobility is not such a good measure of higher education performance.
Why do we like to measure higher education by how well it does on social mobility?
Why do we like intergenerational income mobility to assess college performance?
The simple answer is because it makes intuitive sense. Going to college is supposed to provide opportunity for a better life. Colleges that enroll low income students who go on to be middle and upper-income earners have done a good job on mobility. These colleges should be celebrated. That’s the intuition behind the Mobility Report Cards and I agree.
We should pay attention to which colleges and universities enroll large numbers of lower income students and help to propel those students into meaningful and remunerative careers. Supporting institutions that support Black, Native, Latinx, AAPI, and other students’ that hold marginal identities is good policy. We should fund CUNY, and Cal State, and Maricopa Community College.
Taking the mobility imperative to the logical end gets complicated.
Building from the Mobility Report Card approach, the Postsecondary Value Commission
developed concepts of value for assessing higher education. The Commision identified moving to the 60th, or better yet 80th, percentile on the income distribution at the third of five “thresholds” for determining postsecondary value.
The Commission’s report is suitably nuanced about establishing income-bracket attainment as a value threshold. Some students might have aspirations other than income. It also makes clear that attaining a 60th percentile income is a threshold only for students who originate from lower portions of the income distribution.
Meeting Threshold 3 requires that students attain the income necessary to enter at least the fourth income quintile (60th percentile). This was inspired by measurements of economic mobility introduced by the Opportunity Insights mobility report cards, though their metrics focused on reaching the top income quintile, which may not reflect all students’ personal or career aspirations. However, we recognize that for students already in the fourth- or fifth-income quintile, achieving this level of income represents economic stability, rather than mobility. The intention of this threshold is not to move already high-income students into lower-income brackets, but instead to raise the bar for earnings overall and encourage upward mobility for students from low-income backgrounds.