Risks and Costs in the Quest for Social Mobility through Higher Education

Confronting threats to higher education's social mission.
By Patricia McGuire

Smiling student of color in cap and gown at graduation.

In a society eager for wealth and prestige, social mobility has become the unassailable purpose of higher education, displacing older ideals of becoming a learned person or cultivating the “habit of philosophizing.” What counts today is not whether a college graduate can parse the allegory of the cave or the Hegelian dialectic or the rages of Lear. Rather, the value of college is measured by how much the graduate earns, where the graduate lives, and whether the graduate’s offspring can get into an elite university when their time for college rolls around. Public presentations of college data in magazine rankings or the federal College Scorecard feed the perception that the quality of a university is found in the wealth of its graduates.

The pursuit of the “American Dream” has always been a quest for social mobility, and education is a central component of that journey. In the early twentieth century, my impoverished grandparents immigrated to America in pursuit of better social status; they had big dreams but not much formal education. Two generations later, my position as a college president is a direct result of their quest for social mobility. My mother was the first in her family to graduate from high school, my dad took a few years in college under the GI Bill, and both made sure their children completed college. The great American middle class grew through the twentieth century as this cycle played out among millions of American families.

Social mobility as a primary purpose of higher education is a relatively modern idea. The founders of American colleges in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were not thinking of preparing students for work, other than possible vocations for already-elite students as ministers, teachers, doctors, and scholars. Those early colleges were largely enclaves of leisure and privilege for white men.

In the nineteenth century, emerging movements for equality drove the founding of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Catholic colleges, women’s colleges, and other institutions serving populations excluded from the mainstream institutions. Special-mission colleges became powerful intellectual homes for generations of pioneering leaders; graduates of these institutions distinguished themselves in the learned societies and professional classes they integrated, contributing substantially to wider public acceptance and advances in the social status of women, African Americans, and Catholics.

But even for those special-mission institutions, the students who attended through the middle of the twentieth century were already children of relative privilege compared with their working-class peers. While some students attended on scholarships, for the most part, college before World War II was a luxury good pursued by those who could pay, and social status was reinforced at special-mission colleges in the same way that Harvard, Princeton, and Yale reinforced their own inherently elite class distinction.

When he signed the GI Bill in 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sparked a national revolution in the idea of the university. No longer solely a pursuit of the leisure class, higher education came to be seen as an essential driver of economic development for both the nation and individuals. The GI Bill created a pipeline to the middle class for veterans returning from World War II. Attainment of a college degree fast became an inextricable part of the “American Dream,” and by the time of the first Higher Education Act in 1965, the federal commitment to funding the college aspirations of millions of Americans had become irreversible.

A remarkable confluence of events in the middle of the twentieth century created the platform for higher education’s emergence as the primary pathway to economic security and social status. National economic interests after World War II provided one impetus, but defense interests also played a large role. The 1957 orbit of a small Soviet satellite called Sputnik launched a new chapter in the Cold War, prompting a massive increase in federal funding for universities as the United States raced to catch up with Soviet space technology. Federal investments built laboratories, renovated campuses, and enlarged collegiate capacity even as the baby boom accelerated the sheer volume of college students. At the same time, in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights laws propelled the integration of higher education. In 1972, Title IX broke open the men’s clubs for women’s full access. By the end of the twentieth century, attending college was widely accepted as the essential driver of social mobility and equal opportunity for all.

Somewhere along the way, however, big potholes began appearing on the road to social mobility, particularly for low-income students of color. These students encountered considerable risks that prior generations of more privileged college students had never faced. Hidden economic and social costs, oppressive debt burdens, and complicated life circumstances combined to slow and even stop their progress, posing risks to graduation and social mobility.

The Risk of Not Graduating

Even as access to college for low-income students of color accelerated, red flags went up as graduation rates revealed that, while thousands more black and Hispanic students were entering college, the majority were not completing degrees. Data reported through the National Student Clearinghouse show that, for the full cohort of students that started college in 2012, the national six-year completion rate is 58.3 percent, while the same rate for black students is 41 percent. The “college-completion” agenda soon replaced the “college-access” movement as institutions and policy makers reacted to the completion data.

Much rhetoric around improving completion rates for low-income students of color rests on dubious assumptions about the completion rate as an indicator of the quality of the institution, rather than an index of the characteristics of the student body. With little understanding of the circumstances affecting the ability of low-income students to move forward on the traditional collegiate pathway, many pundits and politicians opined that the solution to the completion problem could be found in getting elite institutions with already-high graduation rates to take more “high-achieving low-income” students of color. The assumption, in what has become known as undermatching theory, is that the graduation rate measures the quality of the institution itself, so any and all students privileged to attend such a fine college or university will graduate at the same rate. This theory suggests that even low-income students of color who are less well prepared will benefit from the social networks and upward mobility of the elite campus.

In fact, the graduation rate is all about the economic and social condition of the student body, not the institution itself. High graduation rates occur at elite institutions with predominantly white student populations and large numbers of wealthy students who are well prepared for college and have extensive financial and social supports. Low-income students of color attend these institutions in such small proportions as to have little impact on data sets. In this sense, the high graduation rates at elite colleges are simply evidence of the self-reinforcing power of the upper class.

Less elite colleges and universities generally have lower graduation rates that reflect the social and economic condition of their more diversified student populations. These students are more likely to be the first generation in college, coming from families and communities that do not have the advantageous academic and social structures and services that support college completion for wealthier students. Social mobility clearly motivates low-income students to attend college, yet the circumstances of their lives also create obstacles to moving up the ladder on a traditional timetable or even in a straight line. For these students, the potholes on the road to social mobility loom large: uncertainty about the return on investments of time and money in a college degree, and increasingly unsustainable levels of student loan debt.

The Risk of Student Loan Debt

A report released in September 2019 by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University reveals that student loan debt is a substantial burden on the lifelong economic condition of students of color. The report indicates that while white students have mostly paid off their student debt after twenty years, black students and other students of color still have about 95 percent of their debt outstanding. The pernicious effect of familial poverty means that low-income students have little support beyond their own resources to pay off their debts, unlike more privileged students whose parents often foot the bill. Moreover, the persistent effects of discrimination in employment and housing have long-term impacts on the economic condition of black families, limiting their ability to accumulate wealth and the social-mobility potential of their college degrees.

The fact that America’s racial wealth gap is actually growing wider as a result of debt burdens for students of color profoundly undermines the purpose of higher education in promoting social mobility. Institutions of higher education as well as public policy makers have a serious obligation to the nation to develop effective long-term solutions to this growing economic, educational, and social crisis.

The Hidden Costs of Attendance

Hidden costs abound on the road through college, adding financial and emotional challenges to the already-steep debt burdens for many low-income students. Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab has conducted extensive research on the issues of hunger, housing, and poverty for college students and on the many costs not reflected in the institutional tuition bill. Low-income students may scrape together enough money to pay tuition only to be stunned by the $1,000 needed for books or the fact that the dining hall closes on breaks, leaving students on subsidized meal plans to fend for themselves. At some point, one more unexpected expense—an additional book in a crucial course, a car repair, a prescription not covered by insurance—can be all it takes to throw the student off the college-completion pathway.

In Moving Up without Losing Your Way, Jennifer Morton, a professor of philosophy at the City College of New York, presents a different kind of cost on the road to social mobility for low-income students whom she calls “strivers.” She writes, “The path of upward mobility can exact painful ethical costs. A striver’s earliest, most formative relationships can be undermined and threatened by the dynamics of moving up in a socioeconomically segregated and highly unequal society.”

Such students often experience a level of conflict that forces them to choose between family and school, and family obligations frequently win out. A low-income family might depend on the student’s wages working at a fast-food joint, and academic obligations that get in the way of that work can be a flashpoint leading the student to stop attending class in order to keep the job to help her family. A student who stays home to care for a sick sibling is making an ethical choice that family comes first, but the math professor giving a quiz that day is likely to respond with an academic penalty. Breaking away from friends in the neighborhood who are not in college can be even harder, particularly when the friends make fun of the student who suddenly seems to have a different way of speaking.

Morton’s “strivers” are case studies in the phenomenon of “cultural code-switching”— moving between the values of their home communities and the values they encounter on college campuses—as a necessary skill to succeed in college while also sustaining ties to family and community. But these ethical choices pose great risks for college completion for these students. While all college students experience some of the risks of change and growth, for low-income students who have not been groomed for this transition since birth, the collegiate experience can be so alienating as to cause the student to abandon the journey.

Confronting Risks and Costs

A group of colleges and universities known collectively as minority-serving institutions (MSIs) have emerged as leaders in addressing these many potholes on the road to social mobility for students of color. MSIs have gained increased attention for their success in getting more impoverished students into and through college successfully, and hence gaining traction in social mobility. According to the American Council on Education (ACE), about seven hundred MSIs educate about 4.8 million students, or roughly 28 percent of all students enrolled at higher education institutions in 2014–15. The MSI group includes HBCUs, tribal colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, and predominantly black institutions.  

ACE’s 2018 report Minority Serving Institutions as Engines of Upward Mobility found that these institutions “propel their students from the bottom to the top of the income distribution at higher rates than do non-MSIs.” With the perspective informed by experience and analysis of their students’ needs, MSIs align programs and services in ways that mitigate the risks and costs of enrollment while supporting student achievement. A 2019 report from the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions also confirms that HBCUs are particularly effective pipelines for low-income black students to enter the middle class. Both the ACE report and the Rutgers MSI report draw on data from Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights project.

While most MSIs are public institutions, some are private, including Trinity Washington University, where I am president. Trinity, now a predominantly black institution, is a case study in the transformation of a private college to serve historically marginalized populations. Once considered among the elites in the world of women’s colleges, Trinity was founded at the end of the nineteenth century by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who sought to remedy the exclusion of women from then-new Catholic University. For most of its first century, Trinity educated predominantly white, Catholic women from middle- and upper-class backgrounds.

In the late 1990s, Trinity began to focus more acutely on the educational needs of women in the District of Columbia, particularly women from the impoverished wards of the city east of the Anacostia River, and by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Trinity’s majority population had become African American and very low income, with about 80 percent of first-generation full-time students on Pell Grants and a median family income of about $25,000. Undocumented students, predominantly Latina, are also an increasingly large presence on Trinity’s campus.

Trinity has made a large institutional commitment to help low-income students advance in economic and social status. The experiences our students have in surmounting obstacles to their success informs our work in developing solutions that can keep them on track while mitigating long-term barriers to social mobility. Trinity keeps tuition low and provides significant scholarship support to help students manage their debt burden. Trinity maintains a web of social-support services to help students with personal needs for food, housing, counseling, and other services, and thanks to the generosity of many donors, we have an emergency fund that can provide financial support for students with critical cash needs. Beyond those economic and social supports, and perhaps even more important, the faculty and staff at Trinity have created a culture of welcome and encouragement to help students navigate the unfamiliar and sometimes alien territories of academic and cocurricular life, reflecting an understanding of the kinds of ethical costs that Morton identified.

In a recent survey of Trinity graduates, 93 percent expressed great satisfaction with their Trinity education, including graduates of the last decade. Trinity’s most recent graduates report that they are well employed and earning good salaries. They are fulfilling the high aspirational goals they set for themselves years ago when they wrote in their application essays that they wanted to come to college to change the fortunes of their families, to set a good example for their children, to gain a level of economic security they had not previously known.

On the recent survey of Trinity graduates, we asked them to respond to those who say that the study of liberal arts is a luxury we can no longer afford, that colleges should focus on training students for jobs. A 2018 graduate of Trinity’s nursing program responded, anonymously: “Liberal arts remind us of the beauty of life. Life is hard enough, competitive enough, and serious enough that we sometimes forget to teach our next generation to love what they learn; there is more to life than a 9 to 5 job. Liberal arts are not a luxury—there are lessons in humanity, compassion, and beauty necessary to see the light in life when the darkness is overwhelming.”

This graduate gained social mobility through entry into a well-paying profession with her nursing degree. But she also cultivated the intellectual foundation for lifelong satisfaction. Her words remind us that we do a grave disservice if we focus only on jobs and earnings as the markers for social mobility. Important as those outcomes are for our students, we who are the stewards of higher education—faculty, presidents, provosts, deans, and all colleagues—must find ways to restore respect for the idea of becoming a learned person as a socially valuable outcome of higher education. We must teach our students that the “habit of philosophizing” is essential for the wisdom they will need to make good choices throughout their lives.

Patricia McGuire has been the president of Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC, since 1989. Her email address is [email protected].