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AUSTIN, Tex. -- American higher education purports to be a driver of economic and social mobility, and compared to many other countries' systems, it is. Yet even today, a student whose family is in the top income quintile is five times likelier than a student from the lowest quintile to earn a bachelor's degree by the age of 24.

That is a problem for several reasons, including that to meet the education-attainment goals that many believe is needed for a vibrant economy -- having roughly 60 percent of citizens hold a quality postsecondary credential of some kind -- colleges and universities must enroll and graduate far larger numbers of the disadvantaged young people and adults whom they have historically struggled to serve.

Plus, "it's just morally wrong, unless we’re trying to prove that the nation can continue to flourish by disenfranchising whole portions of its population," Daniel Greenstein, director of the postsecondary success program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said Monday at a conference at the University of Texas's flagship campus here.

The conference was the first convened by the Collegiate Leaders in Increasing Mobility research initiative, which is a -- well, it isn't entirely clear what CLIMB is, even after a day of compelling conversation involving a lot of important leaders and thinkers in higher education. (For the curious, the B in CLIMB comes from the middle of the word “mobility.”)

For higher education nerds, Monday's convening was a bit like attending the Academy Awards, featuring two former education secretaries (Margaret Spellings and John King), leaders of major university systems and community colleges such as Arizona State University and the California Community Colleges, the heads of major higher education organizations like the American Council on Education and the College Board, and top researchers.

The clear star of the show was the Stanford University economist Raj Chetty, whose name has become synonymous with a piece of research he and several co-authors published early this year showing how every college in the country fared on various measures of "intergenerational mobility," defined broadly as propelling students from low-income backgrounds into the middle class or higher. By creating a new way to judge colleges' performance and revealing that many modestly selective or nonselective public institutions rate very highly in helping their students change socioeconomic classes, the data provided a powerful new lens through which to assess institutions.

Actually, it wasn't Chetty who was the focus of the day, but the research itself, which uses a unique data set merging Education Department data with Treasury Department and Census data about students and their parents. And the most promising aspect of the CLIMB initiative is that the Gates Foundation and the College Board have agreed to fund a significant expansion of the researchers' work.

In a discussion with reporters, Chetty acknowledged that the original research "raised more questions than it answers," pointing out that some colleges and universities rate very well and others do not, but providing no real insight into how and why that is so.

The next stage of the research may shed some light on those questions. Dozens of colleges and universities, including the City University of New York, California Community Colleges, the University of North Carolina and University of California systems, all 11 members of the University Innovation Alliance, and private institutions such as Brown and Stanford Universities, have agreed to let the researchers link their student-level data to the researchers' existing framework of long-term tax data, and the College Board will provide information about actual and potential applicants to the colleges, creating what Brown University's John Friedman, one of Chetty's co-authors, called the "most comprehensive data set on students in higher education."

The expectation, Chetty said, is that by linking all those data, the researchers will be able to clarify the extent to which an institution's strong performance is due to the quality of the students it is admitting as opposed to "treatment effects" -- the actual value added to the typical student's economic mobility by a particular program or set of interventions.

The researchers offered up two early examples based on preliminary research conducted at UT Austin and CUNY. Examining the outcomes of 208,000 students at Texas, they found that students whose families were in the bottom quintile on the economic ladder were, a decade out of college, earning an average of $68,000. That was within a few thousand dollars (and a few percentiles) of UT graduates from the other income quintiles, and there were only modest differences by race, as well.

Similarly, the scholars studied a CUNY program that admits low-income students (average family income of $27,000) whose SAT averages (roughly 805) do not meet the typical admissions requirements to the system's four-year colleges, enrolling them in a summer bridge program and giving them extra tutoring and counseling throughout.

Comparing those students to two peer sets -- one of higher-income students (average $77,000) who scored similarly on the SAT (819 average) and wound up at a CUNY community college or a four-year institution outside CUNY, and one of similarly low-income students who had higher SATs (average 899), the researchers found that the students who went through the CUNY program had an average income of $50,000 by the age of 26 to 34, compared to $46,000 for the higher-income students and $50,000 for the higher SAT students.

Changing Practice and Policy

Many officials at the conference said they were excited by the prospect of getting to a deeper level of understanding about not only which colleges were effective at changing students' socioeconomic arc, but why and how they were doing so. Many institutions are experimenting with various strategies and practices for bolstering their students' success, but many admit that they aren't quite sure which things work and which don't.

That left a set of larger questions hanging over Monday's event. Ben Wildavsky, who heads the College Board Policy Center and helped organize the event, said he hoped the CLIMB initiative would not just help produce better data, but also drive changes in campus practices and public policy.

But during the day's discussion, it was not at all clear whether the many campus leaders, researchers and policy wonks in attendance -- while all caring deeply about the success of low-income students -- feel the need for yet another organization to join the fray. In the last several years, several new networks of colleges, including the University Innovation Alliance and the American Talent Initiative, have surfaced to encourage cooperation and the sharing of effective practices at increasing the success of low-income students.

There was significant discussion about the many efforts that individual campuses are currently undertaking to recruit and retain more disadvantaged students, the ways in which institutions are already working together to share effective practices, and whether state and federal governments might adopt or change policies (such as performance-funding programs) that would spur colleges (with carrots or sticks) to change their priorities.

No one disputed the idea that more collaboration among colleges would be helpful, that higher education institutions collectively need to do a much better job with economically disadvantaged students and that better data on how institutions were faring would both put pressure on colleges and universities that were underperforming and help policy makers figure out which levers to try to pull to improve the lot of low-income students.

The CLIMB initiative's research agenda seemed to have a clear path forward, but at day's end, its potential contributions to spreading good practices or driving policy changes to aid low-income students seemed far less assured.

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