President's Blog

Are we “great equalizers”?

With Kirk Heffelmire

Horace Mann famously described education as society’s “great equalizer”, our instrument to give people a chance to be successful regardless of their background. To deliver on this promise, universities must ensure equal access and position an increasingly diverse student population with increasingly diverse needs toward success.

How well are we doing? Across the country, our scorecard is mixed. But in two important dimensions, Mason is excelling.

Higher education does indeed help narrow class-related disparities, yet a recent paper from City University of New York researchers points out persistent income gaps between college graduates from low-income and high-income households. Ten years after graduation, those from the lowest-income tier earned about 13 percent less than those from high-income households, even after controlling for the selectivity of the college, the student’s major, and academic performance.

Another recent paper, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, confirms higher education’s strong equalizing effect, but finds significant disparities in access. For example, Ivy League institutions enroll more students from households in the top 1 percent of family income than students from households in the bottom half of the income distribution. The researchers also note that there are substantial differences among institutions in the rate of students moving from lower-income households to earning high incomes 10 years after graduation.

The ability to provide widespread opportunity is perhaps the strongest argument for the very existence of tax-payer supported universities. As a public institutions of higher education, it is therefore essential that we try and ensure that higher education is accessible and prepares all students for success. A couple of recent data points seem to indicate that we are doing a reasonably good job.

Last week Mason was highlighted as an institution with virtually no graduation rate gap between white and black students. A new report from the Education Trust listed Mason as having one of the smallest graduation gaps among more than 650 public and private institutions. Nationally, there is a 19.3 percentage point gap between the graduation rates of white and black students at these institutions.

In addition to gaps at particular institutions, part of the national graduation rate gap can be attributed to disparities in where students enroll. Black students are more likely to be enrolled in institutions with lower graduation rates. There is still much work to do across the country to address these racial disparities.

Others have examined the economic mobility of students to rank institutions on their enrollment of lower-income students at a low cost and graduating them to well-paying jobs. This social mobility index contrasts with other higher education rankings by avoiding measures of reputation or prestige to focus on how well the institutions facilitate economic mobility. Again, we are proud that Mason ranks well in this social mobility index, with the best ranking among public institutions in Virginia and in the top 20 percent of the 918 public and private institutions nationwide that were included in the rankings.

Providing an excellent education and helping students move upward is a central mission of public higher education. It’s encouraging to see evidence that Mason may be carrying out this mission successfully, at least relative to our peers. But we also know there is much work still to be done.