Overlooked Colleges Often a Springboard to Middle Class and Beyond

You might be familiar with college rankings, like the well-known list U.S. News and World Report compiles. Each year, students and parents in Georgia and nationwide pore over the results and use them to make crucial decisions about college that can last a lifetime. But do you know there’s a new and different list for which Georgia colleges are best at moving students up the economic ladder? In other words, which schools have the best track record of propelling students from low-income families into the middle class and beyond?

A landmark national study from the Equality of Opportunity project in 2017 analyzed millions of individual tax records and U.S. Department of Education data to determine which colleges are best at providing economic mobility. What researchers uncovered carries powerful implications for students and parents, as well as lawmakers thinking about Georgia’s strategy for higher education. Bottom line: many of Georgia’s top performers are smaller colleges and universities with contributions to the state’s success that too often are overlooked.

It is critical to know which schools succeed at boosting economic mobility because research indicates that higher education can be the great equalizer. Low- and high-income students who go to the same schools tend to earn similar amounts after college.

The core of the study is a detailed analysis of how economic mobility varies among schools. Colleges that rank best in economic mobility serve significant numbers of lower-income students and boost those lower-income students to the middle or upper class. Looking at colleges that launch the most students from the lower 60 percent of household incomes to the upper 40 percent of household incomes, the top 10 Georgia colleges in the study are:

  1. Albany State University
  2. Clark Atlanta University
  3. Fort Valley State University
  4. Spelman College
  5. Paine College
  6. Savannah State University
  7. Columbus State University
  8. Morehouse College
  9. Dalton State College
  10. Southern Polytechnic University (merged with Kennesaw State University)

Six of these colleges are public, and four are private. Seven of the 10 are historically black colleges or universities.

An economic mobility rate consists of success and access, according to the study. Success compares a student’s family income before going to college and the student’s income in their early 30s. Success can be measured at different thresholds. For example, how many students in the bottom 10 percent make it to the top 10 percent, or how many students in the bottom 50 percent make it to the top 50 percent. Access measures the number of students who use the school as a springboard to upward mobility. Some schools serve a large number of low-income students, while some serve very few.

These two components, success and access, are not necessarily connected. For example, a school might provide high success and low access. That is, all low-income students at the school become wealthy, but few low-income students attend the school. Or a school might provide low success and high access, meaning many low-income students attend the school, but they remain low-income. The economic mobility rate takes into account both factors.

College is often a powerful tool for changing the trajectory of students’ lives. Though the most competitive public and private colleges in Georgia get the lion’s share of attention and resources, research like that done by Stanford’s Raj Chetty shows the critical role of colleges like Fort Valley State University or Dalton State College. These underappreciated engines of higher education are key to boosting students into more economic prosperity. They also get much less state funding per student, and fewer students at these schools receive state aid through HOPE scholarships.

It’s important to remember the power of education when considering how Georgia invests in higher education, whether through state funding to colleges or financial aid. Higher education is one of the best ways for people to move up the economic ladder.

Learn more about the value of higher education and Georgia student demographics from our Higher Education Data Book.

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