Your Sweet 16 — If the NCAA Celebrated Social Mobility: Here Are the Colleges That Do the Best Job in Lifting Low-Income Students Up the Economic Ladder

With so much college news being taken up by the admissions scandal, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament provides a welcome breather. This is not because college sports are free of controversy — clearly, they are not — but because they give us an opportunity to cheer for something worthwhile: determined teams trying their hardest to be their best on the court.

But there is something about the schools participating in the Big Dance that is even more worthy of our respect. Some of these colleges are doing a great job moving underprivileged students to the top rungs of income distribution, where good jobs with family-sustaining wages are found.

To figure out which schools in the tournament are most successful at preparing students from humble circumstances to prosper in the workplace, we turn to data from the Equality of Opportunity Project. For each school in the NCAA tournament, we estimated the percentage of their low-income students (those coming from the lowest 40 percent of household income) who reached the top 40 percent by the time they were in their early 30s. We call this percentage a school’s adjusted mobility score. As we mentioned last week in The 74, we used these adjusted mobility scores to map the NCAA schools onto our parallel Income Mobility Tournament bracket.

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Before we turn to the schools that are most successful as engines of upward mobility, a look at the big picture is in order. Together, the 68 schools participating in the NCAA tournament have succeeded in making the intergenerational income leap possible for about 177,000 students out of their total student population of nearly 1,563,000 — an impressive 11 percent. But even more impressive, these 177,000 students represent almost 60 percent of the 306,000 who attended these colleges while their parents’ income was in the bottom 40 percent of wage earners. These colleges and universities are clearly contributing to these students’ efforts to achieve the American Dream. But just as performance on the court varies across these high-performing basketball teams, so does their contribution to the American Dream. And as we move further and further into either tournament, college performance increases.

So, just as the winners on the court at the Sweet 16 junction are doing great, the Sweet 16 of the Income Mobility Tournament are also high performers. All the Sweet 16 mobility champs have scores above 0.63, meaning 63 percent or more of their low-income students make it to the top two quintiles of income distribution. Furthermore, the top eight schools in mobility have scores at 0.68 or above. Unfortunately, the overlap between the Income Mobility Tournament and the NCAA Tournament is quite low. Fully 75 percent of the NCAA’s Sweet 16 schools would have lost in the Mobility Tournament — and some, such as the University of Kentucky and LSU, move fewer than half of their disadvantaged students to the top 40 percent of households.

Completing college contributes greatly to upward mobility. Given today’s low college graduation rate — officially 59 percent, but when part-time and transfer student data are included, as low as 45 percent — how well are Sweet 16 schools doing in getting their students across the finish line? The good news is that on average, the six-year graduation rate of the NCAA’s Sweet 16 is 77 percent and the average graduation rate of their low-income students who receive Pell Grants is 70 percent. These are both well above the national average. But while these statistics are good, they fall short of the success of the Income Mobility Tournament’s Sweet 16. For these schools, the six-year graduation rate is 84 percent, and for Pell grantees, 82 percent. And what is even more noteworthy is how well the Mobility Sweet 16 schools do for their low-income Pell students. The gap between the overall graduation rates and Pell graduation rates for the Mobility Sweet 16 is only 2 percent, while the gap among the NCAA Sweet 16 is around three times as high. How did the mobility contenders accomplish this?

It’s not demographics. For example, the NCAA and mobility tournament Sweet 16s have nearly the same percentage of Pell Grant (20 percent) and Hispanic students (9 percent), and nearly the same percentage of black (6 percent versus 5 percent) and first-generation (23 percent versus 21 percent) students.

In contrast, selectivity does seem to matter. Most of the schools with the highest mobility scores were also the most selective. Among the mobility tournament leaders, seven were classified in Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges as “Most Competitive,” meaning only a very small percentage of applicants are admitted. In contrast, only four in the NCAA Sweet 16 were classified as such. Meanwhile, 10 of the NCAA Sweet 16 were classified as either “Very Competitive” or “Competitive,” with acceptance rates between 50 percent and 85 percent, but only eight schools were so classified among the mobility tournament’s Sweet 16.

This highlights the depth of the college admissions scandal: Wealthy parents are buying seats in the very same schools that contribute the most to the upward mobility of low-income students, hoarding opportunities for their own children at the expense of qualified others with less money to ease their way into these schools.

But we don’t want to focus exclusively on the same small set of elite schools that dominate the national consciousness — and especially the consciousness of the wealthy. There are examples from our parallel mobility bracket that show something more than selectivity is required to successfully move low-income students to the top 40 percent of earners.

For instance, the following schools in our Income Mobility Tournament, all with admittance rates between 75 percent and 85 percent, have higher mobility scores than the average of the NCAA Sweet 16: Purdue (0.61), Iowa State (0.65), Iona College (0.68) and the University at Buffalo (0.71). Others with similar acceptance rates who lost during the First Four or in Round 1 are also worth mentioning — not for the prowess they showed in making it to the tournament, but for the praise they deserve for the great work they do in helping their students turn the American Dream into a reality — Old Dominion (0.61), Seton Hall (0.61), Temple (0.63), St. John’s (0.67) and Saint Mary’s College of California (0.68). All these colleges, whatever their size or financial resources, are attending to the needs of at-risk students who are eager to succeed.

Like millions of others, we can’t wait to see who makes it to the Elite Eight and on to the Final Four. And we long to see more nail-biters like the Duke-UCF match. But most of all, we look forward to the day when schools that win on our parallel bracket proudly announce on their T-shirts, marketing materials and websites that they are “Income Mobility Champions.”

March Madness aside, it’s time to get excited about what most matters for a student’s lifetime.

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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