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Study illustrates U. class disparities

U. struggles to attract low-income students, top 1 percent over-represented within student body

Students from the top 1 percent of the national income distribution attended Brown at roughly the same proportion as students from the bottom 60 percent from 2006 to 2013, according to a new study from the Equality of Opportunity Project titled “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility.”

The researchers analyzed “rosters of attendance at all Title IV accredited institutions of higher education in the United States using de-identified data from federal income tax returns” and the National Student Loan Data System, said John Friedman, associate professor of economics and international and public affairs, as well as one of the study’s investigators. The data covers students born between 1980 and 1991, which roughly corresponds to the graduating classes of 2002 to 2013. Because the University only collects financial information on students receiving financial aid, findings of the study were previously unknown to University administrators, said President Christina Paxson P’19.

From roughly the class of 2002 to the class of 2013, the percentage of students from families in the bottom 60 percent of the income distribution increased from 13.2 percent to 18.2 percent, according to the study. Over the same period, the proportion of students from families in the top 1 percent stayed consistent at around 16 to 19 percent.

“We thought, 20 years ago, that becoming need-blind was going to solve the problem (of disparity in student income backgrounds),” Paxson said. “I think the problem is more deeply embedded in society. The issue for us is not who we admit among those who are in our pool, but who’s in our pool — who’s applying to Brown.” She added that students’ opportunities are often tied to those of their parents.

Friedman said the overwhelming percentage of students from high-income families at Brown “is a statement about the differences in opportunities that kids from different types of families have in the United States.”

The goal of the Equality of Opportunity Project is to “understand the pathways for upward mobility for kids from low-income families,” Friedman said. In the study, mobility was measured as the percentage of the student body with parents in the bottom quintile that reach the top income quintile by their early thirties, he added.

A little over 53 percent of Brown students with parents in the bottom quintile of the income distribution reached the top quintile, according to data for students born between 1980 and 1982. This is nearly the same rate as Brown students with parents in the top quintile — 59 percent of them also reached the top quintile.

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But because Brown enrolls such a small proportion of low-income students, the University is not an effective creator of upward mobility, Friedman said. Colleges with higher rates of economic mobility “tend to be mid-tier, selective, public universities,” he said. The California State University, State University of New York and City University of New York systems have some of the highest mobility rates in the country.

“If you think about what’s a scalable national model in how to improve higher education (and increase mobility), trying to make a lot of schools look like Brown … is not going to be a successful model,” Friedman said. “Trying to get a lot of schools to look like Cal State … is more feasible.”

Paxson agreed that the University’s model could not be brought to scale. Many of the schools that Friedman finds to create high mobility “are not research universities,” she said. “So our missions are very different.”

In recent years, the University has taken some steps to reduce income disparity in the student body and support low-income students. Brown adopted a need-blind admissions policy beginning with the class of  2007. Additionally, the First-Generation and Low-Income Student Center opened in September 2016. Paxson said that the center may help attract more students from low-income families “if Brown continues to build its reputation as a welcoming and supportive place for students from all economic backgrounds.”

But Yolanda Rome, co-director of the FLIC and dean of the college, said the focus of the center is to create “community during students’ time at Brown,” rather than to recruit students from low-income backgrounds or participate in admissions.

The University is not yet prepared to significantly increase the population of students from low-income backgrounds, Paxson said.

Such planning would require more funding for financial aid. While total University scholarships increased from $24.8 million in 1998 to $117 million in 2017, the average scholarship increased from $12,700 — about $18,000 when adjusted for inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, to $41,792 this year, according to data given to The Herald by Paxson. The University also does not offer strong financial aid packages for middle-income students, Paxson said. The University is currently trying to raise half a billion dollars to fund financial aid, she added.

The findings of the study are a “wake-up call,” Paxson said.

“For the most part we’ve gone from being behind our peers (in the Ivy League in terms of economic diversity) to being in line with our peers,” Paxson said. “But that doesn’t mean we are where we need to be. We know we have more work to do.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article stated that President Christina Paxson P'19 had said that "the schools that Friedman finds to create high mobility 'are not research universities.'" In fact, she said that most of the schools Friedman finds to create high mobility "are not research universities." The Herald regrets the error.


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