- Public comprehensive universities — operating in a niche between the largest and most selective flagship institutions and community colleges — are an overlooked "workhorse" in higher education, enrolling around 70% of all four-year undergraduates and providing considerable upward mobility, according to a new report from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
- Written by Jorge Klor de Alva, formerly president of the University of Phoenix, the report examines the institutions' role in improving their students' economic prospects. Looking at 272 of the some 430 schools in the category, it found more than half of students starting in the two lowest-income quintiles reached the two highest by their 30s, and more than half moved up at least one quintile or stayed in the top level.
- An institution's graduation rate played a stronger role in that upward mobility than did its demographics or a lack of selectivity, the report found. Klor de Alva suggests these colleges should do more to increase those rates and recommends risk-sharing as one approach.
The report, titled "Is the University Next Door the Way to Upward Mobility?", concludes that while their graduates make major gains, less than half (47%) of enrollees at these institutions receive diplomas within six years. (That's compared with 42% of enrollees of all four-year public colleges and universities, according to the report.)
Finding that comprehensive institutions' graduation rates were most closely linked to students' post-graduation success, he recommends they double down on efforts to increase them, including through more risk-sharing with regard to student debt. While such proposals would help hold these colleges accountable for graduating more students, he writes, they should offer flexibility for institutions to "craft solutions that fit their own circumstances and their own students' needs."
The Trump administration has come out in support of risk-sharing, recently ordering the U.S. Department of Education to come up with related policy directives around the concept. Risk-sharing was also included in the White House's list of priorities for Higher Education Act reauthorization issued earlier this month.
Klor de Alva bases some of his research on a 2017 study from the Equality of Opportunity Project, which found that several of these mid-tier colleges were able to achieve high mobility rates without being selective.
For example, more than half (51%) of students at the State University of New York at Stonybrook who started in the bottom-fifth income bracket went on to reach the top fifth, giving it a mobility rate of 8.4% compared to roughly 4% at highly selective institutions such as those in the Ivy League. California State University, Los Angeles had a 9.9% mobility rate.
While mobility has continued to increase for students at many of these mid-tier institutions, access to them has declined, the project found.
That report suggests low-income students admitted to selective universities seem to do as well as their counterparts and that encouraging their access is useful — though not necessarily at the expense of high-mobility comprehensive colleges and universities. The researchers recommend revising admissions criteria and transfer policies to address the trend of shrinking access to these institutions.