Redrawing NCAA Brackets for Income Mobility: If March Madness Were About Moving Students Up the Economic Ladder, We’d All Be Celebrating Newcomer Bryant

By Jorge Klor de Alva | March 17, 2022

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As the nation’s concerns about the pandemic are moved to the back burner by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it may seem insensitive to turn our attention to sports. But sports are important. From kindergarten through college, participation in sports helps develop vital human values, from the ability to work in teams to the willingness to sacrifice oneself in the pursuit of common goals. Sports build friendships across diverse peoples and help develop resilience in the face of disappointment. So, with no apologies, millions of sports fans deserve the distraction that comes with this month’s NCAA men’s Division I basketball tournament.

After fighting off the winter’s variant of COVID-19 and with the first four games completed, the 68 colleges selected to compete have started battling each other for the national championship. Unlike last year, where it all took place in a limited number of sanitized bubbles, this time the venues will include multiple cities with stadiums filled with cheerleaders, fans and bands whose frenzy is so much a part of March Madness.

All this means it’s time for us to join in with our own alternative bracket. Since 2017, each year we have prepared a bracket that plots the tournament’s colleges based on how well each participating school helps its students reach the American Dream of upward mobility. In effect, our parallel bracket charts the schools not by what they could be expected to do on the court, but by what they are already doing to improve their students’ chances to succeed in life. 

Our Social Mobility Tournament Bracket spotlights the extent to which disadvantaged students enrolled in the selected colleges have managed to reach family-sustaining earnings 10 years after leaving the school. To examine how well or how poorly these colleges put their students on the path to financial security, we use the Harvard-based Opportunity Insights dataset. By combining millions of anonymous income tax returns with information on thousands of American colleges, these data permit us to map each school in the tournament on a bracket where winners and losers are determined through a mobility rate that represents the percentage of a school’s students born to parents in the bottom 40 percent of income distribution who reach earnings in the upper 40 percent of household income by their early 30s. Put another way, a score of 0.50 on our bracket means 50 percent of students whose parents were in the lowest 40 percent were able to climb to the top 40 percent in earnings.

Based on this year’s March Madness picks, the schools to watch in our Social Mobility Tournament Bracket are Marquette, Providence, Bryant and Notre Dame. While the Bulldogs and the Fighting Irish began the tournament in the lowly First Four rung, in our bracket, Bryant University (0.78) and Notre Dame (0.74) reached our Final Four, with Bryant the overall Champion.  

Click to see the full-size bracket.

We believe our Social Mobility Tournament Bracket is significant because it has never been more important to know whether the time and money spent on college is worth it. As we have noted before, the American Dream — a big part of which rests on children doing better than their parents — has become progressively more elusive. For example, children born in 1940 had a 90 percent chance of outearning their parents, but only half of Millennials can expect the same. Members of Gen Z, those 18 to 25 who make up the bulk of today’s undergraduate cohort, are likely to find it even more difficult. According to recent estimates, as many as 63 percent of them report that receiving an inheritance will be essential to securing their financial future.

It is no surprise, then, that as the public has started to question the value of a college degree — given increasing tuition costs, low graduation rates and underemployment among graduates — the importance of knowing what an education can yield at a particular college or with a specific degree has become more important than at any time in the nation’s history. Fortunately, for all who see postsecondary education as the way to a better life, since 2015 the U.S. Department of Education, through its College Scorecard, has made earnings data publicly available for students — whether they graduated or not — from nearly all institutions. Today, College Scorecard data track earnings not just by school, but by both degree and field of study six, eight or 10 years after students enroll.

Using these data, researchers have estimated the return on investment in education at thousands of colleges. This endeavor is making comparisons between schools more meaningful. For example, armed with these resources, we now know that approximately 14 percent of postsecondary institutions leave their students in such bad straits that they will never be able to gain back their cost of attendance. Meanwhile, because of high dropout rates, researchers have estimated that at about 30 percent of colleges, more than 50 percent of students will still be earning less than a high school graduate a decade after enrollment.

Nonetheless, all universities claim their students will be able to maneuver well the intricacies of their education, and all assert that what their students are taught will add up to a great job and a fulfilling career. But for those students whose parents are in the lowest two quintiles of income distribution, the likelihood that they will climb the ladder to financial success greatly depends on where they go to school. And how well that school performs on the basketball court is no indication of how much its students will earn compared to their parents. 

Click to see the full-size bracket.

This is true even for the outstanding players who are demonstrating their basketball prowess on TV screens across America this week and through the championship game April 4. Only a small number will be able to make money from participating in March Madness; in fact, fewer than one senior in 75 playing in the tournament will be lucky enough to be drafted by an NBA team. For most of these athletes, what matters most for their financial security is something beyond basketball.

With that in mind, we offer our alternative rankings with the hope that they can help draw attention to those colleges that work hardest at putting their low-income students on the ladder to a life-transforming future of financial well-being. With scores ranging from 0.73 to 0.78, meaning over 70 percent of their low-income students advanced to the top 40 percent of earners, we heartily congratulate our Final Four. And a special shout out goes to Northeast Conference Champion Bryant University on its crowning as Social Mobility Tournament champion on its first appearance in the Division I level NCAA tournament!

Jorge Klor de Alva is the president of the Nexus Research and Policy Center. He was previously a senior executive at Apollo Education Group, Inc., a professor at Princeton University, and the Class of 1940 Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

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