The fiscal distress caused by the coronavirus pandemic has sparked ongoing discussions about the failure of elite private universities to use their large endowments to avoid deep cuts. Coupled with the recent conviction of Lori Laughlin in the Varsity Blues scandal, it’s easy to forget that most students don’t attend these types of institutions. In 2018, private four-year colleges accounted for only 20% of total freshman enrollment, compared to 45% for public four-year colleges and universities. However, the public four years go beyond enrolling many students – they are the workhorses of upward mobility for the middle class.
In our new report, which draws on data produced by Opportunity Insights, we show that students who attend college – particularly four-year college – are significantly more likely to experience upward mobility as adults, relative to the position of their parents in the distribution of income. , than the absent. Both public and private four-year colleges have high rates of middle-class mobility—the share of a college’s students who come from the middle quintile of the income (access) distribution and move up at least one quintile adulthood (success) – but public colleges contribute much more to overall upward mobility because they enroll many more students.
Access to college in general—and four-year colleges in particular—is highly dependent on parental income, but Figure 1 shows the strong relationship between parental income and college attendance, and Figure 2 shows how the type of university attended varies by parental income. (These figures use data from Opportunity Insights and are for cohorts born in the early 1980s.) Less than half of children growing up in the poorest quintile of households (quintile 1) attend college, compared to 92% children whose parents are in the top quintile.
Not only are low-income and middle-class people less likely to attend college, but Figure 2 shows that they are less likely to attend four-year college when they do. Only 46% of children from low-income families enroll in four-year colleges, with 36% public and 10% private, compared to 76% of their more affluent peers. And most four-year college students attend public colleges: Outside of the top income quintile, four-year college students are 3-4 times more likely to attend a public college than a private one.
Figure 3 shows the share of total enrollment, expenditure, and upward mobility represented by each sector, separately for the bottom quintile and the middle class. (See our report for more details on how we calculate them). Public four-year colleges account for 40% of enrollment, 54% of spending, and 48% of upward mobility. Two-year colleges account for a similar share of enrollment, a small share of spending — due to their low cost per student — and about a third of middle-class upward mobility. The trends are broadly similar for the bottom quintile, although low-income students are less likely to attend four-year colleges and more likely to attend two-year colleges, compared to middle-class students.
But would those who attend four-year colleges have experienced upward mobility, whether they went to college or wherever they are? Selection into four-year colleges—that is, differences in other characteristics, such as academic achievement, between four-year students and others—does not appear to explain most or all of the the greatest upward mobility in this group. Evidence that many students benefit from attending a public four-year college is mounting:
Our report shows that moderately selective public colleges play a critical role in promoting the upward mobility of middle-class students and that two-year colleges provide good value for society. State and federal government policymakers should ensure that both types of public colleges have the capacity to effectively serve all students who wish to attend.
The pandemic has prompted a massive shift to online learning that could increase access for middle-class students. But ensuring access does not guarantee success. Many institutions have struggled to adapt to the new online environment, which has had a negative impact on student performance. As the fall semester approaches and students grow increasingly concerned about their future career outcomes due to the pandemic, public colleges are more critical than ever.
Cuts to higher education in the coming years are inevitable given the depth of the current budget crisis. State government revenues have dropped dramatically, and many middle-class and low-income families will not be able to afford tuition increases in the current economic climate. Federal government assistance will be needed to ensure access and quality in public colleges, which play such an important role in upward mobility, until the pandemic is brought under control and economic conditions improve.
 US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), “Fall Enrollment in Colleges and Universities” surveys, 1970 to 1985; Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), “Fall Enrollment Survey” (IPEDS-EF:86-99); IPEDS from Spring 2001 to Spring 2019, Fall Enrollment Component; and Degree-Granting Institution Enrollment Projection Model, 2000-2029. (This table was prepared in December 2019.)
Article updated on July 24, 2020 with figures 2 and 3 updated.