Terrel Edmondson was a college dropout waiting to happen. A low-income kid from a Detroit family from which no one had gone to college, Edmondson stepped onto the campus of Michigan State University in the summer of 2014 with no idea how to navigate the world of higher education.
“Without help, I’d have dropped out my freshman year,” Edmondson said. “I’d be back in Detroit, living with my mom, working a dead-end job.”
Instead, he’s a sophomore with a 3.1 GPA, who spent last summer studying abroad in China. “In 10 years, I can see myself in a six-figure job,” Edmondson said.
College is supposed to be a ticket to the middle class. And for some like Edmondson, it is. But the odds of a low-income college student getting a degree, earning a good living, making as much as their classmates who grew up in wealthier families and emerging with manageable student debt, depends to a disturbing degree on which campus they set foot on.
A Bridge analysis of federal data reveals that some Michigan colleges and universities, including MSU, are social mobility factories, offering big tuition breaks for the poor, along with academic tutoring, financial literacy and mentors to ease the adjustment to college life. MSU is tops in the state in promoting social mobility, according to a social mobility index created by Bridge from the recently released federal College Scorecard.
Source: College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education.
Davenport, Wayne State enroll most poor students
Percentage of student body that are eligible to receive Pell Grants – a federal grant for low-income students.
|Rank||College/university||Percent poor students|
|18||College for Creative Studies||37|
|34||U-M Ann Arbor||15.7|
Source: College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education.
Cost for low-income students lowest at Schoolcraft, U-M
The average net cost for students with family income under $30,000 is lowest at Schoolcraft, but Schoolcraft’s figure does not include housing. For a school that provides housing, the least expensive university for low-income students is the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Average annual net cost is expenses such as tuition, fees and housing, minus grants and scholarships.
|2||U-M Ann Arbor||$5,529|
|34||College for Creative Studies||$33,268|
*Average cost for students with incomes below $30,000.
At MSU and a handful of other campuses, students from low-income homes fare as well as their wealthier classmates a decade after entering college. Other schools, however, do little to help low-income students climb the economic ladder.
- Income gap: There is a 26 percent income gap between what Michigan students from poorer families earned 10 years after entering college and what students from wealthier families earned. Students whose families were in the bottom third in income when they entered college in 2004 earned an average of $40,241 in 2014. Students from families in the top third earned $50,919.
- Social immobility: The poor student/wealthier student gap was a whopping 60 percent at Baker College, and over 40 percent at Rochester College, Schoolcraft College and Cornerstone University.
- Poor students soar at some schools: Low-income students who entered MSU in 2004, by contrast, earned more than wealthier classmates - $61,500 compared with $58,500.
- Wide salary range: The median salary of low-income students 10 years after enrollment ranged from a low of $24,500 for Baker College students, to $70,400 for University of Michigan-Ann Arbor students. Kettering University was second highest, at $66,500, and MSU third, at $61,500.
- Wide graduation rates: Grad rates (a degree within six years) for low-income students were as high as 81 percent at U-M, and as low as 17 percent, at Schoolcraft, in Livonia. The best low-income graduation rate among Michigan’s private schools: Alma College and Hope College, at 75 percent.
- Price tags: Costs vary widely, according to the federal data, and appear to have little correlation on poor students’ odds of earning a degree or making a good living. The most expensive school for students with income under $30,000 is Detroit’s College for Creative Studies There, low-income students pay an average of $33,000 per year and, 10 years after enrollment, have an average salary of $40,000. At Lawrence Tech, low-income students paid an average of $24,000 a year, but only one-third earn a degree within six years. By contrast, poor students at U-M pay an average of $5,529 per year, and 10 years after enrollment are earning $70,400.
Ranking schools by social mobility
Erin Fischer preaches social mobility every day.
As a Michigan College Advising Corps member, Fischer offers guidance on higher education options to students at Lansing Eastern High School, where many of the students come from low-income households.
“Without help, I’d have dropped out my freshman year. I’d be back in Detroit, living with my mom, working a dead-end job.” ‒ MSU student Terrel Edmondson
Michigan’s low-income students are less likely to enroll in college, less likely to attend four-year universities, and less likely to graduate when they do enroll. Getting college degrees into the hands of more low-income students is key to improving Michigan’s economy.
“I try to talk about the social mobility opportunity” available at many four-year institutions, like access to “internships and awareness of jobs,” Fischer said. “It’s a real challenge to talk to students and parents about it.”
Fischer said she doesn’t think most students realize that some colleges and universities do a better job of helping them climb the economic ladder than others.
There’s not one agreed-upon way to measure a college’s social mobility success. Before we describe Bridge’s method, here’s how others have measured it:
Washington Monthly magazine uses the percent of students who are eligible for Pell Grants (federal grants for college expenses given to low-income students), average net cost for low-income students, and graduation rates. In that ranking, MSU is likewise ranked highest for social mobility among Michigan schools, and 34th among national universities.
In a social mobility index developed by CollegeNet, an Oregon web technology company, the University of Michigan-Dearborn ranked highest among Michigan colleges and universities, while ranking 52nd nationally. The CollegeNet index factors in tuition cost, the percent of the student body that is low-income, early-career median salary, graduation rate and endowment.
Combine several factors – enrolling poor students, not charging them an arm and a leg, graduating them, and moving them on to good-paying jobs; jobs that pay salaries as high as wealthier classmates receive – and you have a rough recipe for high college social mobility.
Bridge Magazine used five factors to create its own social mobility index for Michigan colleges and universities:
- Percent of low-income students on campus (as measured by Pell Grant recipients);
Their graduation rates;
- Average net cost for poor students to attend;
- Median salaries of low-income students 10 years after first enrolling;
- Gap between the median salaries of former students who were low-income when they enrolled, and their upper-income classmates. This factor was included to see if colleges equalized the economic opportunities for its poor and more affluent students.
In Bridge’s index, Michigan State University tops the list because it enrolls thousands of low-income students like Terrel Edmondson and ensures they graduate into jobs that assure that most will be better off financially than their parents.
MSU ranked among the top five in cost, graduation rate and salaries for low-income students, as well as salary equity between former rich and poor students 10 years after enrollment.
Providing opportunity to a diverse student population is part of the mission of the state’s land grant institution, said Doug Estry, associate provost for undergraduate education at MSU, in an email.
“All of those students have significant potential, but some, for one reason or another, may need more support in realizing that potential than others.”
Poor and first-generation students get that assistance through programs such as summer bridge programs for incoming freshmen to acclimate them to college life, and a federally funded program called TRIO Student Support Services.
About 600 MSU students take advantage of TRIO services, which include academic counseling and seminars on financial literacy.
“When I first arrived, I had no idea what my major would be,” said Edmondson, a media and information major who serves as a mentor in the program and has used the one-on-one tutoring available through TRIO. “Now I’m taking all kinds of technical classes I never thought I could succeed in.”
Michigan Tech, in Houghton, is in the top 10 in the state in graduating low-income students (60 percent) and in future earnings ($54,000).
According to Michigan Tech’s internal data on graduates, low-income students come to Houghton, on average, in the bottom 28 percent of household income in the country. Ten years after stepping on campus, the students from poor families are in the 57th percentile nationally; by mid-career, they are, on average, in the top 23 percent.
“Some of the most satisfying parts of our work is seeing students from limited means spend four years with us and graduate with a standard of living that is higher than anything they’ve ever experienced in their lives,” said John Lehman, associate vice president for enrollment, marketing and communications at Michigan Tech.
In general, low-income students are more likely to move up the economic ladder by attending public universities than private colleges in Michigan, the federal data show. Eight of the top 10 institutions in our rankings are public universities.
“The promotion of social mobility for individuals across the entire income spectrum is an integral aspect of Michigan’s public universities’ missions,” said Dan Hurley, president of the Michigan Association of State Universities, which represents the state’s 15 public universities. “For the state, it’s not just a matter of promoting greater social equity, it’s absolutely critical to Michigan’s future economic prosperity.”
That’s a message Edmondson learned early at MSU.
“I always felt a lot of pressure from myself and my family by being the first person from my family to attend a university,” he said. Now, “I feel comfortable (knowing) I won’t … be a statistic.”
Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report