Chapter 2: Higher Education’s Responsibility to Generate Social Mobility

by A. Gabriel Esteban, Ph.D.

Posted on September 29, 2021

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The magic of social mobility is that it creates a future that students cannot fathom. That was true in my case growing up in a rural suburb of Manila, Philippines, under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. I never imagined I could become the president of not one, but two major American universities. Lived experience—both as an immigrant student and an academic administrator—inspires my recommendations on the most meaningful actions we, as university presidents, can take to set our students on an upward class trajectory. This is undeniably higher education’s most transformative outcome. 

Elevating a student’s lifetime of social and economic power is the epitome of Emerson’s notion: “To leave the world a bit better…that is to have succeeded.” I would state it even more resolutely: our obligation as leaders in higher education is to ensure that every student who enters our universities leaves as a well-rounded citizen of the world with a college degree. This is even more important for a student who comes from a low-income family. When we recruit, admit, and enroll a student, we are making a commitment that we will prepare them for meaningful employment or graduate school. Hopefully, they return for new knowledge, skills, and credentials as they advance throughout their careers. 

Access is the first step in this commitment to lifelong learning. If we are to achieve our most fundamental responsibility, our student populations need to include, at minimum, a representative percentage of low-income America. As education leaders, we are familiar with the dramatic increase in lifetime earnings that are achieved by college graduates compared with people without a bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D. Higher education is the proven family wealth-builder that the United States needs right now to address our vast income gap. 

The pandemic laid bare the impact of unaddressed social inequities in every realm of our lives. If our institutions were not already prioritizing the academic success of our lowest-income students, we must reengineer them to include this outcome. At DePaul—the largest Catholic university in the United States with 22,000 students—a record 49% of fall 2020 freshmen were students of color, 34% first-generation students, 32% Pell-eligible, and 23% from the city of Chicago. We know well that enrollment does not equal degree completion, so when Education Reform Nowi, a non-profit advocacy organization, ranked DePaul number three in social mobility for Pell-eligible students among private universities in the United States, it was a powerful proof point for our mission and can become one for yours as well.

The pandemic laid bare the impact of unaddressed social inequities in every realm of our lives.   

Based at Harvard, Opportunity Insightsii (formerly the Equality of Opportunity Project) calculates universities’ effectiveness at fostering social mobility. Its formula is success rate multiplied by access, when success rate is the share of students from the bottom 20% income bracket who moved to the top 20% as adults, and access is the fraction of students who come from that bottom 20%. That transformation happens only when students persist to graduation. Consequently, retention and persistence should be strategic measures we must consult after each term—not just for revenue calculations, but to make sure we are not losing our most vulnerable students. 

“Student swirl” is a well-known phenomenon in which we can expect a percentage of students to transfer from the first college they attended, but if your student does not enroll in another university immediately, they are at high risk of never earning a degree. To prevent this, our Student Affairs initiative, Academic Continuity and Engagement (ACE), deploys a team that engages at-risk students during and after each term to solicit their experiences with mental health, finances, family commitments, and faculty/staff support, among other topics. Based on responses, students receive personalized messages of empathy and encouragement and are directed to relevant resources to support their persistence. In its first year, ACE efforts reached 5,740 at-risk undergraduates, and in the end, retained 45 more students than analytics predicted. 

Students of color have made clear that strong attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion are necessities for them to feel welcome, valued, and safe in our university communities. It would be challenging to recruit and retain students if we do not meet this standard in a way that resonates with them. Not only is it the right thing to do, but attracting underrepresented students of color is a matter of survival—especially for smaller universities—because demographic trends indicate a dramatic increase in Black and brown students in the academic pipeline. As we approach our 125th anniversary, DePaul is introducing new initiatives and actively reviewing policies and practices for improvements we can make to alter the status-quo and foster a universally friendly academic atmosphere where students only have to concentrate on their studies. 

Three newer faculty-focused efforts that also have an impact on students are already producing results: 

  • The Presidential Fellows program invites faculty to work in the president’s office researching diversity and inclusion issues designed to recruit and retain diverse faculty, staff, and students. 
  • The Faculty Recruitment Incentive Program provides $30,000 over three years to promising underrepresented faculty of color to support their research and professional development and encourage them to join our faculty. 
  • The faculty search committee education program ensures fairness in the hiring process by requiring rigorous anti-bias training for all committee members. 

In 2019, DePaul launched Generation Success to support first-generation students by easing their transition to college. With a focus on community building, Generation Success creates an individualized plan for each person in the 25-member cohort. A peer mentor, staff, and faculty member—all of whom were the first in their families to attend college—are assigned to each student. Together, they define first-year goals and mitigate challenges that may arise along the way. Family members receive quarterly updates about their students and have access to a program point-person.

Low-income students attend community college at higher rates than they enroll at four-year universities, making community colleges excellent recruitment grounds for students your university can propel up the economic ladder.   

Another effective way to foster social mobility is to smooth the process of transferring from a community college into your institution. Low-income students attend community college at higher rates than they enroll at four-year universities, making community colleges excellent recruitment grounds for students your university can propel up the economic ladder. The DePaul Admission Partnership Programiii is a transfer preparation program aimed at students enrolled at partner community colleges that far surpasses a simple articulation agreement. Students who attend our partner community colleges meet with our admission counselors while working on their associate degrees, ensuring every course they take will transfer. Among other benefits, this enables these students to attend a lower-cost program in their first two years and guarantees every tuition or financial aid dollar is applied toward their bachelor’s degrees. We also designate scholarships to this population, incentivizing an enrollment segment not served by traditional aid heavily allotted to incoming freshmen. 

Cost of attendance is one of the most significant barriers to degree completion, especially at private colleges and universities, making fundraising for scholarships a critical element to generating social mobility for your graduates. Students eligible for the federal Pell grant represent the lowest-income families in America, yet Pell does not cover a significant percentage of their educational costs. Institutional aid is vital to keeping Pell recipients enrolled and reducing their work hours. When aimed at graduates of our urban school system, institutional aid attracts academic achievers who are more racially and socioeconomically diverse, a pool for which higher education can make a significant impact. DePaul recently introduced the Chicago Promise Scholarship, offering a four-year renewable scholarship totaling $80,000 to Chicago Public School graduates with a 3.7 GPA, and a similar one to Catholic high school graduates in Illinois. A new State Scholar Plus scholarship requires a slightly higher GPA and offers up to $100,000 over four years to make a private education as affordable as our public flagship. 

“Now We Must: The Campaign for DePaul’s Students” was a mini-movement DePaul launched early in the pandemic as we recognized how much our students were suffering. Designed to meet students’ needs in five areas to reduce their risk of dropping out, it was an overwhelming success and raised $51.5 million for scholarships, expanding on the success of our previous comprehensive fundraising campaign that generated more than $100 million for scholarships. Your trustees, alumni, and friends understand the fundamental value of need-based scholarship aid, and they likely will be as quick to respond to this noble cause as ours were. To be sure, there are factors in our students’ lives beyond our control; yet it is our responsibility to create every possibility for them to earn the degrees they imagined when they first walked through our doors and ensure persistence when a family experiences financial crisis. 

By helping our students meet their basic needs, we free them to look past their graduation date toward the income-generating careers that will transform their lives. It is essential to help students become career-ready from day one. We need to create career experiences for them early and often, through internships and strategic on-campus student work so they can demonstrate their knowledge and skills to employers. Inexperienced students from all walks of life, especially those from communities with fewer people modeling the traits required for professional careers, need exposure to career options and opportunities to practice entry-level skills that will position them for early success.

By helping our students meet their basic needs, we free them to look past their graduation date toward the income-generating careers that will transform their lives.   

In 2020, DePaul piloted Future Forwardiv, a co-curricular program for early-stage career exploration that has been popular with students and parents. More than 400 incoming students received an institutional grant as an incentive to participate, simultaneously serving to boost financial aid and enhance career preparedness. For fall 2021, we anticipate 500 participants in the program. We adjusted the grant amount, and it will apply to the following year’s tuition for all students who complete the year-long program, serving as a retention tool as well. By capturing so many first-year students, Future Forward’s success will transform the work of our Career Center by fostering a practice of early engagement. By the time students are seniors, they will have all the skills they need to set themselves on a successful career trajectory. 

Yet another effort DePaul uses to prepare career-ready students is the Education and Development Grant for Employabilityv (EDGE) program, in which a select group of first-year students, under the mentorship of a staff professional and peer mentor, focus on skill development while contributing to a department project team. This program is a joint venture between Student Employment and Financial Aid, again helping us achieve two goals at once. 

There are myriad ways to start your students on their journeys to intergenerational wealth building; the most important are those that your institution finds effective for your student population. Embedding new approaches into your strategic plan is a powerful way to accelerate your graduates’ social mobility. In sum, these strategies represent important steps toward that goal: 

  1. Benchmark against peer institutions to understand your strengths in generating economic advancement for your students and commit to amplifying them through proven tactics. 
  2. Expand your prospective student search to enroll a higher percentage of well-qualified low-income students, and ensure they earn the credentials they need to succeed. 
  3. Provide a welcoming atmosphere with comfortable spaces to address uncomfortable moments. 
  4. Ease the process of transferring from a community college by making it a preordained next step when students start their associate degrees. 
  5. Raise scholarship funds and deploy them in new ways to support low-income students. 
  6. Prepare students with practical skills early so they excel in their entry-level positions and are well positioned for long-term career success. 
  7. Devise strategies that serve multiple purposes to create wins for students and your institution. 

DePaul was founded in 1898 to serve an immigrant community that faced discrimination—students like me. For nearly 125 years, we have educated a diverse body of students, and we remain true to our roots by actively recruiting students whose access to higher education is limited by ethnicity, race, gender, income, and citizenship status, among other attributes. Today, adult learners and those seeking credentials through faster, certificate-style programs need access to programs that are flexible and fit their work and family responsibilities, requiring the same agility we used in past decades to remain competitive and meet the ever-changing needs of our students. Live online, hybrid, and asynchronous classes serve these students well. 

Higher education innovation must constantly pilot and evaluate new approaches to access; retention; price; diversity, equity, and inclusion; career exploration; and skill acquisition, among others, to create pathways to success for every student. This is the most effective way we can address the societal inequities prompting uprisings in our streets. This is how we will deliver the American Dream in the 21st century.