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

Monday, August 28, 2017

Confronting the Past to Change the Future: Guidance from our Colleagues in Sociology

Kimberley A. Reyes, PhD Candidate
Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education
University of Michigan 

A few months ago, my Facebook newsfeed was full of references to a special section of the May issue of Social Problems entitled, “Essays on Voices from the Margins: Inequalities in the Sociological House.” I’m not a regular reader of this journal, but as someone who studies contention within academic disciplines, I was intrigued by all of the buzz. This special section is a collection of essays from six noted sociologists of color—Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, David Embrick, Julian Go, Mignon Moore, Aldon Morris, and Mary Romero—each of whom offered candid reflections on the current state of sociology as it relates to racial inequality and the issues faced by scholars of color in the discipline. Their reflections were generated by a town hall discussion at the 2016 meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), during which frank conversations were had about the ways in which social inequalities are reproduced within a discipline that claims social inequality as its core concern. Taken together, the essays issue a forceful call “to build a better sociology” (Morris, 2017, p. 210)—one that that supports diversity and inclusion in practice as much as in rhetoric.

I offer three key themes from across the essays that I believe are broadly relevant to and instructive for our own field of higher education:

1) Confronting a historical foundation of racism

First, these scholars insist that the discipline must admit to itself that sociological knowledge is deeply intertwined with racism and colonialism. The "historical heroes" (Bonilla-Silva, 2017, p.181) credited with founding sociology were not only overwhelmingly white and male, but they often rationalized racial prejudice as a biological and innate tendency. Early elite sociologists’ beliefs in white superiority silenced and suppressed the minority of sociologists of color who dared to think differently—ousting brilliant thinkers such as W E. B. Du Bois and Oliver Cromwell Cox from the sociological canon. Accordingly, these historical ties to a white western point of view must be understood as sociology’s greatest intellectual constraint (Morris, 2017). Confronting that constraint requires an epistemic insurgency—a fight to include worldviews that expand sociological knowledge beyond the “imperial standpoint” (Go, 2017). Higher education researchers must critically examine the origins of our own foundational concepts (some of which are based on sociological frameworks), much in the way that student persistence theory has been critiqued for its assimilationist bias (Guiffrida, 2006).

2) Rejecting adherence to objectivity/value neutrality

Second, these scholars maintain that the discipline’s adherence to objectivity and value neutrality greatly hinder its potential for societal transformation (Bonilla-Silva, 2017; Embrick, 2017, Morris, 2017). Bonilla-Silva (2017) and Embrick (2017) argue that when white sociologists “made a pact with the devil of objectivity” in the 1920s, they created a sociology that is more concerned with gathering data than changing lives for the better (Bonilla-Silva, 2017, p. 183). The expectation that the scientific must be kept separate from the political is an enduring hallmark of white sociology, leaving many contemporary sociologists in a state of paralysis when it comes to doing work that is intentionally geared towards social change (Embrick, 2017, p. 190). Constructing a public sociology that is grounded in human emancipation is possible, but the discipline will need to replace the myth of value neutrality with the belief that activism and scientific work can and must go together (Morris, 2017). In the field of higher education, cultural norms of objectivity and neutrality may explain why, for example, race-related studies published in our top journals commonly avoid critical discussions of racism (Harper, 2012).

3) Having the courage to look within

Lastly, these scholars turn the sociological gaze inward by describing the inequalities that are reproduced across multiple levels of the discipline—in scholarly/professional organizations, in departments and programs, and in universities (Embrick, 2017). Bonilla-Silva (2017) argues that relentless racial microaggressions and the other every day ways in which sociologists of color are made to feel marginal are central mechanisms of organizational whiteness in the discipline. Moore (2017) contends that both race and gender dynamics create an environment where women of color must constantly justify their existence within the discipline. Reflecting on what has changed since her well-known study of graduate students in sociology from two decades ago, Romero (2017) laments that the representation of graduate students and faculty of color remains abysmally low, and that mainstream sociology refuses to include important sociologists of color in its theories, methods, and curricula. Although the discipline is dedicated to studying inequality “out there” in society, it must address the persistent structural hostility to diversity within. Higher education scholars, then, must collectively reflect on everyday practices within our own profession. Do we put too much emphasis on institutional affiliation at our scholarly meetings? Do we place departmental diversity work primarily onto the shoulders of our students and faculty of color? Do we privilege certain epistemologies in our higher education degree programs?

The parallels between sociology and the field of higher education are clear.  Scholars in our own field are committed to addressing social inequality, but the field itself is based on similar historical legacies of exclusion, myths of value neutrality, and continues to lack compositional diversity across faculty and graduate students. Many of us in higher education consider ourselves scholar-activists. Part of this role involves examining and challenging the biases embedded in our own dominant knowledge paradigms. We cannot effectively address social inequality across higher education until we have come to terms with how inequality is reproduced within our own field.


Bonilla-Silva, E. (2017). What we were, what we are, and what we should be: The racial problem of American sociology. Social Problems, 64(2), 179-187.

Embrick, D. G. (2017). Discontents within the discipline: Sociological hypnagogia, negligence,      and denial. Social Problems, 64(2), 188-193.

Go, J. (2017). Decolonizing sociology: Epistemic inequality and sociological thought. Social           Problems, 64(2), 194-199.

Guiffrida, D. A. (2006). Toward a cultural advancement of Tinto's theory. The Review of Higher    Education29(4), 451-472.

Harper, S. R. (2012). Race without racism: How higher education researchers minimize racist         institutional norms. The Review of Higher Education36(1), 9-29.

Moore, M. R. (2017). Women of color in the academy: Navigating multiple intersections and          multiple hierarchies. Social Problems, 64(2), 200-205.

Morris, A. D. (2017). The state of sociology: The case for systemic change. Social Problems,         64(2), 206-211.

Romero, M. (2017). Reflections on “The department is very male, very white, very old, and very    conservative”: The functioning of the hidden curriculum in graduate sociology departments. Social Problems, 64(2), 212-218.