For those of us who are able to remember 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid” was a campaign slogan created by James Carville, a political strategist for former President Bill Clinton.
While this line remains relevant today, an argument can be made that upward mobility is a strong predictor of a successful economy. While there are many ways in which institutions of higher education are evaluated – access, affordability, graduation rates, fiscal stewardship – upward mobility is not discussed as often as it should be.
This is a measure that should concern anyone who desires a vibrant economy, and it is an area in which Salem State University shines.
Raj Chetty’s “The Equality of Opportunity Project” is perhaps the seminal work on upward mobility in the U.S., as seen through the lens of higher education. Chetty posits that parental income is one of the biggest predictors of upward mobility. Not surprisingly, those of us fortunate enough to be born into a two-parent household have an advantage right out of the gate.
Using millions of anonymous tax filings and financial aid records, Chetty et al. looked at the role of intergenerational mobility – parents’ earnings verses student earnings over time – by analyzing data from over 30 million college students who were born in 1980, 1981 and 1982. Out of 2,203 higher education institutions, Salem State came in at number 731 for student mobility achievement.
What does that mean, you ask? It means that the parents whose income distribution fell in the bottom 20 percent saw their student reach the top 20 percent of the income distribution after college graduation. Further, when compared to like selective public colleges in the U.S., Salem State ranked 212 out of 369 for student mobility achievement.
This is impressive given that 40 percent of students who graduated in the early 2000s fell in the bottom 20 percent of median family income. Since 2000, this percentage has risen to where 51 percent of our students fall in the bottom 20 percent and meet PELL Grant eligibility guidelines. The PELL Grant is the largest federal grant for undergraduate students showing significant financial need. In order to be eligible, the total income of a family of four cannot exceed $50,000.
In addition to Chetty’s Equality of Opportunity Project, CollegeNET, a privately-held company based in Portland, Oregon, created the Social Mobility Index (SMI). CollegeNET, which currently has more than 1,300 clients, defines itself as providing web-based, on-demand technologies for higher education institutions and nonprofits, all with the goal of increasing efficiency and simplifying jobs.
CollegeNET states that their SMI measures “the extent to which a college or university educates more economically disadvantaged students (with family incomes below the national median) at lower tuition and graduates them into good-paying jobs.” After its ranking of 1,380 colleges, Salem State came in at an impressive 228.
These statistics demonstrate that Salem State University has been making a positive impact for our students, particularly our students who are traditionally underserved, their families, the workforce, and society at large.
Salem State’s upward mobility index is not only important from a social justice standpoint, but is especially valuable when one considers that the vast majority of our graduates remain in Massachusetts upon completing their degrees.
Salem State University just graduated more than 2,000 students. Roughly 80 percent of these graduates will live and work in the Commonwealth and will be added to the more than 65,000 current Salem State alums.
Not only are our graduates providing our communities with teachers, principals, nurses, health care administrators, lab technicians, business leaders and more, but by helping students achieve higher levels of income than their parents before them, we are helping to drive a much stronger economy for years to come.
Throughout my 31 years at Salem State University, we have maintained our commitment to providing access to a high-quality education for a diverse community of learners. Many of our students are the first in their family to attend college, rely heavily on financial aid, work more than 25 hours per week, and have family obligations. They come to Salem State with their talent, determination and resilience, and we aid them in overcoming obstacles to reach their goals.
There are many ways to evaluate the work we do in higher education. When considering the widespread and ongoing impact that upward mobility has on families, communities and the Commonwealth, this measurement should be at the center of discussions about an institution’s success.
Nate Bryant, Ed.D., serves as chief of staff for the president of Salem State University. He is a Salem resident.