Equity & Diversity Opinion

University of California Tops Upward Mobility Scale

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — September 23, 2015 3 min read
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New York Times analytics expert David Leonhardt calls the University of California an “upward-mobility machine” in a report on the newspaper’s College Access Index, which measures economic diversity of students at top colleges.

Six UC campuses along with Pomona College constituted the top ten schools in the 179-school index, which were selected for having high overall graduation rates.

“The state and the University of California have much to be proud of in the commitment they have made to educate low income students in this state. The state has committed to funding the tuition of virtually all low income citizens of the state who gain acceptance to the UC,” says Patricia Gándara, professor of education at UCLA and co-director of the Civil Rights Project. (Gándara also contributed a post on English Learners to ‘On California.’)

UC Irvine led the list; Davis was 2nd followed by Santa Barbara, San Diego, and UCLA. Berkeley was 7th and Pomona College 10th. Among other California schools listed, Stanford ranked 19, Occidental 32, Claremont McKenna 44, USC 85, Pepperdine 111, and Santa Clara 162.

The access index is based on three factors: the share of all students receiving federal Pell Grants (which largely go to students from lower income families), their graduation rate, and the net cost of college for poor and middle class students after financial aid.

Thus, Pomona, whose tuition and fees total $62,770 this year, makes the list because of its well-funded scholarship program. Its share of Pell Grant students rose to 22 percent last year from 16 percent three years earlier. Pomona’s huge endowment—$1.147-million per student—makes its “need blind” admissions policy possible.

Other Colleges Could Do the Same

Leonhardt makes the point that other well-healed colleges could do the same. “Tellingly, the colleges enrolling more diverse student bodies—not just in terms of race, religion and geography, but social class as well—don’t fit any one model....This variety suggests that economic diversity is within the power of any university. The question is whether the university’s leaders decide it’s a priority.”

Which brings to a cautionary tale about politics.

Those Pell grants? Not such a sure thing. Republicans want to freeze them for a decade, and President Barack Obama’s proposal to allow prisoners to access them, has met a firestorm of opposition based on the false assumption that giving cons higher education grants would hurt law-abiding kids. (Pell Grants are included in higher education legislation that was supposed to be reauthorized in 2013. There is said to be little chance that Congress will pass a bill this year, but there is hope that the same bipartisan team that drafted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act renewal may come up with a preliminary draft this fall.)

Federal aid is key to California public colleges and universities efforts toward economic diversity. UC Irvine, the poster child for positive efforts in the Leonhardt article, has been battered by California budget cutbacks, and it gets only about 8 percent of its budget from the state general fund. Overall, the University of California has taken some backward steps, enrolling fewer in-state students and increasing the numbers of affluent out-of-state students, who pay much higher tuition.

Look at the Intersection of Race and Economics

And there is another caution about the intersection of race and economic class. One of the reasons that California has large numbers of students who are Pell grantees is that it’s a state full of immigrants, and first generation immigrants are likely to be economically poor regardless of the occupational status of their parents. “Thus, former engineers drive taxis, former doctors work as orderlies. So, the children of immigrants appear to come from low income homes even if parents are well educated in their homelands, and had more economic resources there,” says Gándara.

She also recalls the body blow rendered by Proposition 209 passed in 1996 that banned affirmative action at California public colleges. “UC has never recovered the racial and ethnic diversity it had prior (which at the time was viewed as being extremely weak). The gaps have grown proportionately over time.”

Given the state’s growing economic inequality, it’s good that its universities and colleges are pushing against the tide. They can’t do it alone, but it’s important to recognize what they are doing.

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