In a recent working paper, Raj Chetty, John Friedman, Emmanuel Saez, Nicholas Turner, and Danny Yagan of the Equality of Opportunity Project investigate how different US colleges perform according to a metric that is of deep sociological interest: How many of their students came from families in the bottom quintile of the income distribution, yet managed to enter the top quintile by their early 30s? That is, which colleges and universities combined relatively broad access to underprivileged students with high rates of intergenerational mobility?
This analysis produces fascinating rankings of institutions of higher education, and a new number of enlightening figures. The first picture reproduced below (Figure V.A in the paper) gives a sense of the central findings. There is a strong relationship between access and success: Schools that admit fewer students from the bottom quintile see more of those students enter the top quintile. The blue dots in the top left of the figure are the Ivies plus a few other highly selective colleges. They admit very few students from poor households, but half or more of them make it to the top quintile of the income distribution.
Chetty et al. define a metric that quantifies this trade-off: the so-called Mobility Rate. This rate is the product of the Success Rate (on the Y axis, the percentage of students among those that come from the bottom quintile who make it to the top quintile) and Access (on the X axis, the percentage of students who come from the bottom quintile). The product of the two, then, is the overall percentage of all students who come from the bottom quintile and make it to the top quintile.
There will always be outliers, and attempts to replicate them may well become fruitless exercises in wishful thinking. Instead, the paper offers a more reliable path forward.
This mobility rate varies from school to school – the curves in the figure above connect schools with the same rate. What the authors take away from this picture is that there are schools which have the same success rate, but very different levels of access. They believe that the colleges that deserve more study – or perhaps even imitation! – are the outliers that combine a given success rate with a particularly high level of access.
It is not clear that this is the best lesson to learn from the paper. There will always be outliers, and attempts to replicate them may well become fruitless exercises in wishful thinking. Instead, the paper offers a more reliable path forward, in Figure V.D.
What this figure shows is that there is an entire category of schools that deliver high success rates for a given level of access: for-profit colleges. While the authors do not highlight this finding, it turns out that these often vilified institutions outperform both public colleges and private non-profit colleges. This difference isn’t smaller either: the mobility rate at for-profits is some 25% higher than at other colleges. This is a stunning discovery that surely merits more attention from researchers and policymakers alike.
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