FSU, Higher Education, and Social Mobility

I am indebted to Dr. Angela Taylor, Department of Criminal Justice, for making me aware of this NY Times study.

A recent study by the New York Times uses millions of anonymous tax records to measure the impact of university attendance on social mobility.  These are immensely important data since most students and their families invest in college in hopes of a better future.


I encourage each of you to explore the wealth of data at this site to arrive at your own conclusions.  If you compare FSU to other North Carolina institutions, it is clear that we are having a positive impact on social mobility of our students.  FSU ranks 4th among 101 institutions in North Carolina in terms of the percentage (30%) of students who move up two or more economic quintiles.

Yet, despite the good work of FSU and other institutions that serve low-income students, significant income gaps continue to exist among graduates of different institutions.

See the link to FSU’s data.  You can make comparisons with various peer groups.  I am focusing on North Carolina institutions.


Consider the following information about the economic status of our students:

  • Median family income of our students in 2013: $33,900; (92nd of 101 in North Carolina)
  • Percentage of students from families who earn less than $20,000 per year: 22% (28 of 101 in North Carolina)
  • Percentage of students from families who earn $110,000 or more per years: 5.9% (94th of 101 institutions in North Carolina)

Impact on social mobility:

  • Percentage of students who move up two or more quintiles: 30% (4th of 101 institutions in North Carolina)
  • Percentage of students who move from the lowest to the highest economic quintile: 9.6% (40th of 101 institutions in North Carolina)

While we can take pride in the positive impact we are having on upward social mobility, we must strive to eliminate the growing income gap between the poorest and richest members of our society.  The median income of our students at age 34 is $28,700, which ranks 44th of 101 NC institutions.

But, compare this to Duke University, whose students’ median income at age 34 is $87,500, the highest in the state, and nearly $60,000 more than our students.  Of course, students at Duke come from the wealthiest families, with 19% from families with annual income of $630,000 or more and 69% from families with incomes of $110,000 or more. (Compared to our 5.9%)

While taking pride in the impact we have on social mobility, we must remain concerned that the impact of a university education on social mobility remains relative to students’ economic status when they enter the university.  Higher education in the US, including FSU, is not generally ameliorating the vast economic disparities in the nation.

What can we do in the light of these data?

My suggestions are: First, acknowledge that economic status does not tell the whole story of the impact of a university degree.  On alumni surveys, our graduates report higher levels of social engagement and well-being that their counterparts at similar institutions.  We cannot measure value exclusively in terms of income. Yet, we would be foolish to ignore these data.

Second, the UNCF Career Pathways Initiative, grant-funded project, gives us an excellent opportunity to strengthen all of our programs in terms of preparing students for career success. Increasing applied learning experiences such as internships, student-faculty research projects, service learning are important strategies for improving career readiness.  Another strategy to enhance career readiness is to integrate highly-focused certificates into our degree programs.

Third, the long term impact on social mobility will be enhanced by graduate and professional school degrees.  So, as we enhance preparation for careers, we must also help as many students as possible enroll in graduate or professional schools.

I recognize that the persistent problems of income inequality and the negatives social consequences of this inequality will not be easily or quickly resolved.  But, we at FSU are in position to make a positive difference!