Social mobility is a vital part of the generalized American Dream—the act of creating a brighter future for yourself and your family by moving to a higher income class. However, it’s an idea that has become increasingly difficult to translate into concrete results, due to decades of wage stagnation, systemic racism, and increasing income inequality. If we are to end this new Gilded Age and deliver America’s promises of prosperity to all her citizens, making social mobility possible is crucial to success.
We discussed higher education’s role in promoting social mobility this week with Universty of North Carolina Greensboro’s Chancellor, Dr. Franklin Gilliam, Jr.. He is uniquely qualified to understand the correlation between upward social mobility and higher education because UNC Greensboro ranks number one in social mobility among North Carolina’s higher learning institutions and number 23 in the US.
Inequality is widespread in almost every aspect of American life, and some Americans even have many built-in advantages at birth. These advantages compound favorably for them throughout their life. They may have the benefit of private education, access to job opportunities through their family or network, or a financial cushion to fall back on, allowing them to take coveted, but unpaid, internships or other such opportunities they otherwise could not afford.
“Assume there’s an elite private university in which a student comes from a family where both parents are surgeons, and they go to an elite university. Well, there’s only so far the university can take them that they haven’t already started from. There’s a ceiling effect,” Chancellor Gilliam told Mila.
“Our students start without many of the built-in advantages that many more affluent students come to campus with. Our students across the board come with native intelligence. They come with a willingness to work hard, and what we do is try to replicate those built-in advantages that more affluent students have and then put them on career paths that are going to give them a leg up in the marketplace,” he said.
As it turns out, it works. According to the Brookings Institution social mobility memo: “Individuals born into families at the bottom of the income distribution who get a college degree have more upward mobility than those who do not.”
So, how do colleges help drive social mobility? Well, for starters, college graduates make significantly more money than high school graduates or college dropouts. More income is the easiest way to ascend the socio-economic ladder inherent in American society. Higher income makes generational wealth creation possible. Assets like houses, stock portfolios, savings accounts are transferrable to future family members. Wealth creation is essential for minorities, who are systematically kept from generating generational wealth because of racist policies and systemic racism in our housing, justice, and labor sectors.
Studies have also shown that educated parents pass that education on to their children. Even if a college-educated adult doesn’t see increased income from their higher education, they’ll likely be qualified for more opportunities, and their children will be, too.
Not all colleges are created equal when it comes to promoting social mobility. Many of America’s most prestigious universities–places like Washington University, Colorado College, Tufts, and Middlebury– take in more students from the top 1% than the bottom 60% of income earners. Students at these and similar institutions may already be benefitting from many of the built-in advantages college provides to the less fortunate. In general terms, elite universities usually ranked lower than their regional counterparts in social mobility rankings because of their elite student body.
UNC Greensboro is a contrasting story of success. It accepts a diverse array of students, making it more than 50% people of color, a group that has been systemically barred from upward social mobility. 31% of UNCG students are first-generation college students, and roughly half of the student body is eligible for Pell Grants—both of which are factors in determining social mobility.
The proof is in the pudding, according to Dr. Gilliam.
“We train nurses and school principals and small business owners,” he said. “We have strong chemistry and biochemistry, and we have companies like Syngenta and Labcorp where our students are working. Our local health care provider, Cone Health, about 13 percent of their workforce, which is about 14,000 employees, are UNCG graduates. 95% of our students come from North Carolina, and 80% stay in North Carolina when they graduate. So, these are kids from small towns and from urban areas who just need a chance.”
Institutions of higher learning are critical to achieving the American Dream, and play a big role in ensuring social mobility for their students. So many underprivileged Americans need only an opportunity to succeed, and college provides that opportunity.
Bedrosian, Alyssa. “UNCG Ranks No. 1 in NC for Social Mobility.” UNCGNews, 25 Sept. 2020, news.uncg.edu/no-1-nc-social-mobility/.
GREGOR AISCH, LARRY BUCHANAN. “Chetty College Mobility.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Jan. 2017, www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/college-mobility/.
Reeves, Richard V., and Joanna Venator. “The Inheritance of Education.” Brookings, Brookings, 29 July 2016, www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2014/10/27/the-inheritance-of-education/.
“Research Summary: Education and Lifetime Earnings.” Social Security Administration, www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/research-summaries/education-earnings.html.
“State-Sponsored Segregation: Richard Rothstein.” Future Hindsight, www.futurehindsight.com/episode/state-sponsored-segregation-richard-rothstein/.
Venator, Joanna, and Richard V. Reeves. “Three Reasons College Matters for Social Mobility.” Brookings, Brookings, 29 July 2016, www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2015/02/06/three-reasons-college-matters-for-social-mobility/.