Earlier this month at an event titled “Higher Education and Upward Mobility”, Stanford economist Raj Chetty presented findings from the Equality of Opportunity Project. This study of intergenerational income mobility was possible because its team of leading economists was given access to millions of anonymised tax records several years ago. I first heard about the project late last year when the New York Times related one of a key finding on intergenerational income mobility changes over time: for those born since 1980, the likelihood of making more money than your parents has sharply declined.

The event, held at the CUNY Graduate Center on February 6th, concerned another set of findings from the study concerning how rates of intergenerational income mobility vary across colleges in the country. The evening opened with remarks from CUNY’s chancellor and the Graduate Center’s president as well as the former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg. They were justifiably enthusiastic about the study’s rating of CUNY colleges. Though the study points to a “fading American dream,” that evening the focus was on how much better CUNY colleges have done than their peers in contributing to the upward income mobility of students from low income families.

The income mobility rating of each college was defined as “the fraction of its students who come from the bottom quintile of the income distribution and end up in the top quintile.”1 The average mobility rate nationwide is 1.7 percent and 90 percent of the colleges have less than a 3.7 percent mobility rate. But this rate significantly is not just how successful a college is at getting students from the bottom quintile to the top quintile. Ivy League colleges could be successful in intergenerational mobility but would not have as large of a population of students in the bottom quintile of income. For example, Columbia University got 61 percent of their bottom quintile students into the top quintile but only 5 percent of its students came from the bottom quintile. In contrast, City College was successful in getting 36 percent of their bottom quintile students into the top quintile yet 32 percent of their students come from the bottom quintile. In order to adjust mobility rates by how access varies across colleges, the project defined the “mobility rate” as the product of two statistics from the dataset: the “access rate” (the percent of parents in the bottom quintile of income) and the “success rate” (the likelihood that students’ eventual earnings place them in the top quintile if their parents were in the bottom quintile).

For those not attending to every new trend in popular culture, last year a meme began circulating on the internet after a Tweet was posted that placed two photos of Drake side by side, each highlighting an appealing but distinct quality of the celebrity, with the caption “Get you a man who can do both.”

Drake

In thinking about how mobility rankings were arrived at in the Equality of Opportunity Project, I went back to this meme for inspiration. I wondered if in fact you could get a college that could do both, be highly successful in moving students into higher incomes and admit a large number of lower income students. Though some ranked highly in mobility, did any actually do well on both of the component measures determining mobility rates?

In watching the livestream recording, I was glad to see Chetty paid particular attention to how exceptional CUNY colleges were, both locally and nationally, in bottom-to-top income mobility. Of the 17 CUNY colleges in the dataset, 6 ranked in the top 10 with the Baruch, City College, and Lehman ranking highest in the nation. Further, CUNY colleges had an average income mobility rate twice the average of other New York City colleges, including noted private colleges like NYU and Columbia.

These results are significant because they come at a time of great uncertainty about the future of CUNY. With a governor committed to keeping state budget growth below 2 percent since the economic recession of 2007-08, the city’s public colleges have suffered budget cuts year after year. Then this past year Governor Cuomo threatened a “cost shift” that would have required the city government to assume nearly half a billion dollars in the CUNY budget. Though the worst was averted, the possibility of budget cuts loom large on campuses across the city, particularly in light of a damning report released last November by the state‚Äôs Inspector General on mismanagement at CUNY. In these austere times, the findings of the Equality Opportunity Project provide a useful counter-narrative to the ones told to justify retrenchment and the restructuring at CUNY.

However, CUNY advocates should not gloss over the problems in the system that emerge from this same study. By examining the datasets publicly available from the study, I noticed important differences among CUNY’s constituent institutions when I decomposed the mobility measurement reported by the study. For those interested, I have shared my analysis project files.

When I plotted the success and access rates for all colleges, I noticed that the colleges in the three largest public college systems—CUNY, California State University (CSU), and the State University of New York (SUNY)—roughly clustered together at the top. Out of 2200 institutions in the dataset, only 104 had both higher than average access and success rates. All but one CUNY college belong to this select group of colleges that have higher than average access and success rates. So, if your goal is to get a college than can do both, CUNY does seem to be your best bet.

But it was also apparent that there were differences among the CUNY colleges. So I plotted the mobility rates alongside the rates of access and success for the 17 CUNY colleges. I also included the mean for each rate among the CUNY colleges to help visualize which colleges do better or worse compared to other CUNY colleges.

Right off the bat, Baruch achieved the highest mobility rate but was below average among CUNY colleges in terms of access. As a school geared towards training students for careers in business, this is not too surprising. Instead, what was surprising was that among the top three colleges, those with lower mobility rates had higher access rates. Perhaps it was not so easy to find a CUNY college that did both. With few exceptions, there seems to be an inverse relationship between access and success among these higher mobility colleges.

Only two colleges achieved higher than average access and success rates: City College and Lehman College. Though John Jay and New York City College of Technology both ranked higher than three more elite and older colleges in the system (Hunter, Brooklyn, Queens), neither did better than average in both access and success. The case of the three older, elite colleges is also telling since their ranking highly in mobility hides that they rank among the lowest in the system in terms of access. The only college with lower access rates was the College of Staten Island, which landed dead last among CUNY colleges in mobility. On the opposite end of the inverse relationship, Hostos Community College had the highest access rate but the lowest success rate.

The Equality of Opportunity Project gives us ample reasons to praise CUNY. But, we must also ask the tough questions that arise from the study. The uneven patterns of low-income access and successful economic mobility within the system suggest that the story of economic mobility at CUNY is not an easy one to tell. What have been the trade-offs made by the various CUNY institutions in broadening the base of access while still successfully getting graduates to climb the economic ladder? Can you get a CUNY college that can actually do both, be egalitarian and meritocratic? For the poor and working people of New York City to still look to CUNY for the hope of a better future, such difficult questions will necessarily have to be wrestled with.

Throughout CUNY’s history its meritocratic commitments have won out over its egalitarian aspirations, often under the weight of fiscal pressures. With Cuomo still tugging at CUNY’s purse strings, keeping alive what has made CUNY so special in American higher education will require recommitting to an egalitarian vision of CUNY, perhaps even deeper than has previously been true in its 150+ year history.