Two Qs: Leslie McCall on Upward Mobility and CUNY

February 3, 2017

The GC's Leslie McCall (Sociology/Political Science) comments on 'Higher Education and Upward Mobility,' an upcoming panel discussion featuring economist Raj Chetty of Stanford University.

On Monday, February 6, the Graduate Center will host "Higher Education and Upward Mobility," a panel discussion featuring economist Raj Chetty of Stanford University. The event is free and open to the public.

Among the findings in Chetty's new study: CUNY alone propels almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class as all eight Ivy League campuses combined.
Moderated by David Leonhardt of the New York Times, the event also features the GC's Philip Kasinitz (Sociology) and Leslie McCall (Sociology/Political Science), associate director of the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality. Chancellor James B. Milliken will offer welcoming remarks. 

McCall recently talked with the GC about what makes the study--and CUNY--so important.

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GC: What makes Chetty's new study so compelling?
McCall: The findings in general are not so much new, as we've known for a long time that intergenerational mobility is much higher among college graduates -- that is, that family income has considerably less impact on children's earnings as adults if they've graduated from a four-year college. And also that family income is correlated with the probability of obtaining a college degree in the first place.

We also know from various rankings of colleges -- most recently the Social Mobility Index -- that CUNY ranks highly among schools in terms of its combination of low cost and high post-graduate earnings.

What's different about the study, however, is its comprehensive and nearly population-level scale, given its use of large administrative data from the IRS. The best prior research has been done using small, representative, longitudinal data sets that cannot break out individual colleges (though some studies have also focused on different groups of the population or different kinds of schools -- for example, how racial minorities perform at the most selective schools). But the results from these past studies are surprisingly similar to the results from this study using a very different source of data.

What specifically makes CUNY a catalyst for upward mobility?

CUNY does well because its success rate" of propelling low income students into the top 20 percent of the income distribution is high, and not just its "access rate," according to the methods that Cherry and his co-authors use -- a combination of "access rate" and "success rate" -- and the actual results obtained from those methods. 

On average, across all CUNY campuses, including community colleges, about a quarter of students from families in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution make it into the top 20 percent as adults, whereas the median success rate, across all 2000+ colleges in the study, is 14.4 percent.
And many of the four-year colleges are above the CUNY average with success rates in the 30 to 40 percent range, such as Baruch, Hunter, City College, Queens, Brooklyn, and John Jay. Many of the elite schools, however, have even higher rates: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford fall in the 57 to 66 percent range.

But, yes, the CUNY schools outperform the elite schools especially in the "access rate," the share of students that come from low-income families, which is 29 percent for the CUNY system and typically less than 10 percent for most elite private schools (and often less than 5 percent). And of course the CUNY system has many times the number of students overall that the elite schools have.

RSVP for the event here.

Leslie McCall's areas of interest include social inequality, economic and political sociology, social theory, and methods. Her work on class inequality among women in the United States, and more generally, on how racial, educational, and gender inequality overlap and conflict with one other, has been widely published. In her new book, The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs About Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution (read a related article here), McCall examines American attitudes about income inequality, economic opportunity, and redistribution in the era of rising inequality.