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Public universities are a great economic equalizer in the U.S.

Many of the lowest-income graduates of the University of California system go on to earn more than their parents–a welcome deviation from most economic trends.

Public universities are a great economic equalizer in the U.S.
[Photo: Flickr user John Morgan]

For young people right now, there is little cause for optimism. Millennials are pelted with reminders that they’re about half as likely to own a home than young adults were in 1975, that they earn a relative 20% less than boomers did at this stage of life, and that having kids is extremely impractical for all but the uber-wealthy (unless they want to add to the piles of debt, often due to student loans, they’re already trying to crawl out from under).

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With wages stagnating across many professions, and cost of living continuing to skyrocket, it can feel like there’s no way for a young person leaving college now to get any sort of foothold in society, particularly if they come from a low-income background to begin with. But new data from the University of California system shows that a quality public education might still serve as one of the country’s most important equalizers.

[Photo: Flickr user K.Oliver]

Over the past year, a team lead by Pamela Brown, the UC’s vice president for Institutional Research and Academic Planning, undertook a study of the system’s 2 million alumni to understand their trajectories after college: what careers they followed, how their earnings have changed over time, and how their economic outcomes compare to that of their families.

One of the most promising findings was that within five years of graduating, the majority of low-income students are out-earning their parents–a welcome break from the overarching trend away from economic mobility. This may be due in part to the UC’s wide-ranging financial aid program, which completely covered tuition for 56% of in-state undergrads in the 2016-2017 year with Pell Grants and other federal and state funding programs. The UC system also makes it a point to help undocumented students in particular, and gave a total of $86.2 million in grants to 4,100 undocumented students in the same year. The system has made it a focus to help students through with as little debt as possible–and considering student debt is one of the most crippling factors for young people trying to navigate the U.S. today, it’s a noble goal.

The UC system has found that around 36% of its low-income students move from the bottom 20% of the economic ladder to the top 20% within 10 years of graduating. Of course, this depends on profession–those students who go into engineering or tech outearn writers–but it still testifies to how good, public, debt-free education acts as a necessary resource for individuals trying to move up the economic ladder in the country. Even though the U.S. is still a very far from many European systems like Finland and Norway, which offer tuition-free education, the impact of public universities like the California system shows that more investment from our federal government to make them as accessible and affordable as possible will go a ways toward closing some economic gaps in our society.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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