Monday, January 8, 2018

Starting with Theory

By: Bach Mai Dolly Nguyen
Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs
Lewis and Clark College 

Progressive change. Social change. Transformative change. These are a few of the labels of change that serve as the ending point found in the conclusions of many higher education manuscripts. But, what does that change look like? Feel like? How is it defined? And, how do we measure that it has been achieved? These are difficult questions because the parameters of change are boundless, existing in countless iterations within the imaginaries of all who care to ruminate on the possibility of progress. In Rojas’ (2017) conceptualization of approaches to social theory, he offers one way through which change may be measured:
The translation of theoretical ideas into research agendas requires a link between the concepts that motivate theory (social class) and the specific things that can be measured (income or occupation). The practice of social research isn’t what happens after you learn some theory. It is what motivates the theory, tests the theory, and is framed by the theory. Theories, cases, and evidence mutually create each other (p. xxiii).

Put another way, change can be measured by examining the moment(s) when theory and research intersect, or what Rojas (2017) calls “the point of contact between theories and empirical data” (p. xxii). It goes without saying that theory is broadly imbedded in research, as most journals call for a theoretical framework in publication submissions. Viewed as specific “points of contact,” the notion of theory, as it is largely applied now, pivots away from instances when theory and research brush up against each other, to the precise locations where they do (or should) meet face-to-face.

What are those locations? In the research process, the subject of whether theory guides the design, analysis, or writing aspects of the study is often called into question. However, the more fruitful question is: how can theory be applicable to just one, or only two, of those aspects of the research process? Applying theory to only the written component of research, for example, would seem to be the actualization of fitting a square peg into a round hole. Personally guilty of attempting to retroactively apply theory to a completed study design, I acknowledge that it is possible to find an almost seamless match between theory and research—oval peg, round hole. However, starting a research project with theory, allowing it to guide the iterations of design, to imbed itself within the analyses, and to organically become part and parcel with what is written about the study represents a wholly different form of research. This approach to research focuses on how the roots of inequality are maintained and manifested, centering the lens for understanding those inequities at the heart of studies, and allowing research questions to critically consider how empirical work contributes to the mitigation of that inequality. As hooks (2000) advises, “Everything we do in life is rooted in theory. Whether we consciously explore the reasons we have a particular perspective or take a particular action there is also an underlying system shaping thought and practice” (p. 19). As it is in life, research—in its entirety—is rooted in theory and put together, give life to how social change moves from abstraction to measured.

As a field that sits at the axis of other disciplines (e.g. sociology, social psychology, policy), higher education scholars are privy to an abundance of theories from which to build and contribute knowledge. There is ripe opportunity, then, for the field to deeply consider how a spectrum of theoretical lenses can advance, challenge, and modify research in postsecondary education. With greater commitment, or a recommitment, to examining the “points of contact” between theory and research, higher education scholarship may better understand, measure, and achieve the change that it has so aptly envisioned.


Hooks, B. (2000). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. London, United Kingdom:
Pluto Press.

Rojas, F. (2017). Theory from the working sociologist. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Social mobility, Equality of Opportunity and the Case for Minority Serving Institutions

By: William Casey Boland, PhD Candidate
Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions
University of Pennsylvania

The higher education research world is still coming to terms with the recent Equality of Opportunity Project’s paper on intergenerational income mobility and the role of higher education (Chetty, Friedman, Saez, Turner, & Yagan, 2017). The report notes the symbolic role of higher education in boosting social mobility. Yet it also illustrates that who graduates from colleges and universities doesn’t neatly align with the myth of the meritocracy of U.S. higher education. While it would be easy to indict U.S. higher education as a monolithic institution maintaining the borders of a U.S. caste system as defined along racial and class lines, Chetty, Friedman, Saez, Turner, and Yagan (2017) offer a descriptive portrait of the complex nuances of how social mobility varies based on the sector in higher education.

Chetty et al. (2017) include a top 10 list of colleges based on household labor earnings. Of these, 8 of 10 are minority serving institutions (MSIs). Six are located in Texas. Two are community colleges. This makes some intuitive sense. MSIs enroll a higher proportion of students of color. It stands to reason such institutions would graduate higher numbers of students of color. Yet critics of MSIs often claim they suffer low graduation rates. A recent report by Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions collected numerous data points to illustrate how MSIs graduate more students of color than peer non-MSIs in many instances. For instance, MSIs enroll over 40% of all students of color attending a postsecondary institution. This accounts for more than 26% of all college students in the U.S. (about 3.8 million students) (Boland et al., 2017).

Based on Chetty et al.’s (2017) list of the “Top 10 Colleges by Mobility Rate,” 6 of the 10 schools are minority serving institutions (MSIs). These are mostly institutions that are part of large state public systems in California, New York, and Texas. These are also within the states with the most MSIs in the U.S. This is the product of evolving demographic patterns throughout the country. The MSIs included within that list were institutions that became MSIs through an increasing enrollment of students of color (in this case, Latino and Asian American and Pacific Islander students). While there are presently over 600 MSIs throughout the U.S., there is every indication that this number will continue to rise and by a significant level.

Nick Hillman (2017) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers helpful tips on using the Equality of Opportunity data in practical research. He assessed California State University campuses in terms of mobility. Most of these campuses are MSIs. As he displays, some of these demonstrate a high level of mobility amongst their students. For instance, 47% of students attending Cal State-Los Angeles moved up at least two income quintiles. Cal State-Dominguez Hills has an overall mobility rate of 41%.  

Given the apparent success of many Texas higher education institutions in advancing overall mobility, I examined MSIs in that state. More than one-third of the state’s higher education institutions are now MSIs (Boland, 2017). Nailing down an exact number of MSIs in any state is difficult given how different organizations define an MSI as well as the fact that some categories of MSIs become an MSI through an ever-shifting enrollment as defined by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (Gasman & Conrad, 2013). While the majority of community colleges in Texas (as well as California) are MSIs, they also comprise a substantial proportion of the public four-year systems.

Texas MSIs showed even higher rates of upward mobility than those in California. Table 1 shows some of the Texas MSIs and their overall mobility rates. What is interesting to note is that both two-year and four-year schools showed a relatively high rate of upward mobility. For example, 48% of Texas A&M International University students rose at least two income quintiles. Several community colleges boasted a high level of mobility, such as Laredo Community College and Southwest Texas Junior College (both 41%). The racial composition of both schools is overwhelmingly Latino as of fall 2015 according to IPEDS: 98% in the former and 83% in the latter.

Figure 1: Texas MSI overall upward mobility

Average overall mobility
El Paso Community College
Laredo Community College
Our Lady of the Lake University
Prairie View A&M University
South Texas College
Southwest Texas Junior College
Sul Ross State University
Texas A&M International University
Texas A&M University- Corpus Christi
Texas A&M University- Kingsville
Texas Southern University
Texas State University
University of Texas- Pan American*
University of Texas- Arlington
University of Texas- Brownsville*
University of Texas- El Paso
University of Texas- San Antonio
University of Texas of the Permian Basin
* Merged to form University of Texas- Rio Grande Valley in 2013

Obviously, these are all slightly beyond back-of-the-envelope calculations and call for deeper investigation. Yet the reports and my cursory analysis make clear that MSIs could play a much more pivotal role in social mobility than heretofore explored in the research literature.


Astin, A. W. (1985). Achieving Educational Excellence: A Critical Assessment of Priorities and Practices in Higher Education. Jossey-Bass.

Boland, W.C., Samayoa, A.C., Gasman, M., Lockett, A.W., Jimenez, C., and Esmieu, P. (2017). National Campaign on the Return on Investment of Minority Serving Institutions. Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Boland, W.C. (2017). An Unstoppable Tidal Wave of Progress: Minority Serving Institutions in Texas. Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., Saez, E., Turner, N., & Yagan, D. (2017). Mobility report cards: The role of colleges in intergenerational mobility. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Hillman, N. (2017). Getting oriented to the new college mobility data. Retrieved from