Stony Brook University is one of the top colleges in the nation for promoting upward economic mobility among its students, according to a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The working paper identified Stony Brook as the country’s third-best school for helping students move from the bottom quintile of the U.S. income distribution to the top.
However, emerging enrollment trends could hinder long term success in this endeavor if fewer low-income students enter the school.
Some experts say that enrollment may not be the only metric to consider and that degree retention is equally important. The State University of New York’s Equal Opportunity Program (EOP) aims to solve both of these issues by providing a support system for economically disadvantaged students to help them get into college and make it to graduation.
The NBER study assigned each school a “mobility rate,” multiplying the fraction of students who started off in the lowest 20 percent of incomes by the fraction of students who landed in the highest 20 percent. Stony Brook and Pace University both earned overall scores of 8.4 percent, preceded only by California State University, Los Angeles which received 9.9 percent.
Ivy Leagues and selective private schools like Duke University and Stanford University were able to help a greater fraction of their poorest students — roughly six out of 10 of their students from the lowest bracket were propelled to the top bracket versus around five out 10 of students at Stony Brook. Despite this, mid-tier colleges ultimately proved to be more effective because they had a greater number of low-income students whereas the selective schools had only a handful. For instance, 16.4 percent of students in the study at Stony Brook hailed from the bottom quintile, compared to 3.8 percent of students at the more selective schools. This means Stony Brook was able to help more students overall.
Nevertheless, researchers warn that this mobility rate could wane in future years, pointing to a gradual decline in the share of poor students attending Stony Brook and similar schools from 2000 to 2011. They identified budget cuts as a potential factor behind this trend.
State spending on direct aid to colleges has stagnated over the past 15 years, according to an April report from the Hamilton Project — an offshoot of the Brookings Institute, a left-leaning think tank.
“State support to post secondary institutions is really important for making sure that low-income students are well served by those institutions and could plausibly play a role in the declining attendance of low-income students at places like Stony Brook,” Ryan Nunn, policy director for the Hamilton Project said.
He then explained that getting low-income students enrolled is only half the battle and that colleges should be focusing more attention on making sure students actually complete their degrees.
“More than a quarter of low-income students who enroll in a four year institution end up dropping out by the second year,” he said.
At Stony Brook, the EOP seeks to address this issue by providing a support system for low-income students. The EOP recruits economically disadvantaged students whose academic preparation in high school may have otherwise barred them from attending Stony Brook.
“These are students who are clearly bright, clearly capable, but may not have had the same types of opportunities as other students,” said Cheryl D. Hamilton, director of the EOP at Stony Brook.
Upon being accepted, EOP students must spend a month at Stony Brook the summer before their freshman year. In addition to taking classes, they learn study habits and behaviors that will help them become more effective learners once the semester starts.
EOP students are also assigned a counselor who will advise them for the rest of their time at the university, making sure they are enrolled in the right classes and staying on track to graduate on time.
As a part of the EOP’s recruitment efforts, current students have the chance to go back to their hometowns to tell high school students about the different opportunities available to them through the program.
“In many cases these students are for the first time seeing someone from their community saying, ‘Yes, you too can go to college,’” Hamilton said.
This was the case for junior English major Kimberly Espinoza, who after enrolling in Stony Brook through the EOP will be the first in her family to graduate from college.
“I know I’m encouraging a lot of people, not just in my family but in my neighborhood,” Espinoza said. “Once you give someone an opportunity to show what they’ve got, only good can come from that.”
Hamilton said she believes the EOP has helped further the SUNY system’s mission to provide widespread access to a quality education. “It’s a moral imperative,” she said. “If we’re going to have an educated workforce in New York state and in this country, we have an obligation to make higher education available to all students.”