Winners and Losers: Universities and the Pursuit of the American Dream

Document Type

Issue/Research Brief/Blog

Publication Date



higher education students, financial status and behavior


Higher education continues to be an important driver of upward mobility: Over half of low-income students who enrolled at public and nonprofit universities in the early 2000s moved up to one of the highest two income quintiles by the time they reached their late 20s or early 30s. But not all postsecondary institutions deliver an education that puts students on an upward path. Consequently, it is a matter of great importance for students, families, and policymakers to understand the variation among colleges in the rates at which their students climb the income ladder.

This report examines the landscape of economic mobility for students who attended a group of 1,107 four-year colleges and universities in the early 2000s. We find that many factors are correlated with economic mobility, including college selectivity, per-student spending, available programs and majors, student demographic characteristics, and especially geographic location and college graduation rates.

It is increasingly evident that there is no single recipe to generating strong mobility outcomes; indeed, some less-competitive institutions outperform highly competitive universities in the rate at which they move students from the bottom-two income quintiles to the top-two income quintiles. Meanwhile, a successful college’s mobility rate cannot simply be reduced to the student populations it enrolls. Often, colleges with similar student populations and characteristics produce substantially different mobility outcomes.

We conclude by examining a group of institutions that “beat the odds” in generating high mobility rates; that is, after controlling for a wide range of demographic and institutional characteristics, these institutions consistently move students up the income ladder at levels that are far above what would be expected of them. These colleges are rarely state flagship universities or Ivy League institutions; instead, colleges that beat the odds by the largest margins are usually regional, comprehensive colleges.