No-Nonsense College: These 10 solid U.S. colleges prove you don’t need Harvard or Yale to achieve the American Dream

For years we’ve heard about how Americans’ upward mobility is broken and middle-class income has stagnated.

The data backs it up, which is probably why the percentage of 30-year-olds in the U.S. earning more than their parents did at the same age is plummeting.

Policymakers have failed to address this wealth, income, and opportunity gap, but some institutions of higher learning are taking up the slack. A recent study by a team of academic superstars including Harvard University’s Raj Chetty and the University of California at Berkeley’s Emmanuel Saez — a frequent collaborator of French economist Thomas Piketty, whose idea of a wealth tax inspired Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — has identified the U.S. colleges and universities that best promote upward mobility. 

That study, which assigned hundreds of U.S. universities a score for their success at moving its graduates up the income scale, is posted in several formats on a splashy website, along with a link to an interactive tool from The New York Times that allows you to see how your favorite college rates.

The researchers found that highly selective colleges and universities such as Berkeley, Columbia, MIT, Stanford, and Swarthmore (which I attended as a first-generation college student) actually do a very good job of elevating lower-income kids to the middle-class and beyond. But they take so few kids from the bottom 20% — less than 4% of enrollment — they can’t move the needle much.

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Good state and local universities, however, can and do. That’s why they dominate the list of the 10 colleges that are most effective in helping their graduates move from the lowest 20% (family incomes below $25,000 a year) to the top 20% ($110,000 and above). That’s the stuff of Horatio Alger stories, yet it happens all the time at these American Dream machines.

Two of the top 10 — Pace and St. John’s — are private. Only Stony Brook University (of the State University of New York) cracks U.S. News & World Report’s top 100 national universities rankings for 2020. ”The colleges that have the highest bottom-to-top-quintile mobility rates.” the study’s authors write, “are typically mid-tier public institutions” — colleges the kids of entitled parents like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin would avoid at any cost. All of these 10 schools are located in California, New York, and Texas. 

These 10 schools can be ethnically concentrated — Cal State L.A. is two-thirds Hispanic and 89% of the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley’s students are Hispanic, for example, while others have a high percentage of Asian-Americans. But this is not just an immigration story, one of the study’s co-authors, Prof. John Friedman of Brown University, said in an interview.

“There’s definitely a good share of students [from immigrant families] at high-mobility-rate places,” he said. But even at City University of New York (CUNY), the legendary gateway to the American Dream for generations of poor and minority kids, children from immigrant families “do very well,” he added “but there are also an awful lot of students who are not children of immigrants and they do very well, too.”

The authors contrasted Stony Brook, on eastern Long Island, with Columbia, the Manhattan-based Ivy League university founded in 1754. Not surprisingly, lower-income students who attended Columbia, where they hobnob with the sons and daughters of the American oligarchy, had seven times the likelihood of climbing to the top 1% of the economic ladder as kids who attended Stony Brook. But Stony Brook offered many, many more students access to the middle- and upper-middle class than Columbia. 

“There’s something special going on at SUNY Stony Brook, and we don’t quite know yet what that is,” Friedman said.

So, I called Stony Brook to find out. Over the past five years, Stony Brook has improved graduation rates across the board. It has a high-tech, data-driven focus on student performance and a high-touch, advisor-heavy outreach program to make sure kids stay on track. 

“From the day they set foot on campus, we start talking about success,” said Charles L. Robbins, a vice-provost and dean of the Undergraduate Colleges. “We have created what I refer to, and I take pride in it, as a culture of success.”

Stony Brook is selective, with a 40%+ acceptance rate, and draws almost 10% of its students from New York City’s fabled specialized high schools. Its $10,000 a year in-state tuition, especially when combined with grants and aid, looks dirt cheap compared with Columbia’s $55,000 tuition (though elite colleges provide generous financial aid).

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“We’ve got high-quality programs, we’ve got high-quality students, and we offer a high-value education,” said Braden J. Hosch, head of Stony Brook’s Office of Institutional Research, Planning & Effectiveness. “When you do those three things, you end up with good things happening.”

We should reward colleges with proven results.

Good things are happening — at Stony Brook and elsewhere, even as states have cut $9 billion from public universities over the last decade. Stony Brook’s budget, for example, remains below where it was before the Great Recession.

That’s just nuts. Colleges like these show that if you do the right things, you can keep the American Dream alive. We should reward colleges with proven results, and the rest of higher education should follow their lead.

Howard R. Gold is a MarketWatch columnist. Follow him on Twitter @howardrgold. “No-Nonsense College” appears monthly. Please send questions or ideas to mktwatchcollege@gmail.com.

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