Unsung Heroes

Why are some universities more successful than others in promoting social mobility amongst their graduates? What values, programs and characteristics do the most successful schools share? How do they differ from the authors’ school, Emory University?

This analysis seeks to answer these questions through the careful examination of personal narratives, large data trends, college curricula and mission statements of the universities that are the most successful at bringing students from the bottom 20% to the top 20% in respect to socioeconomic status. These schools, none of which are ranked as elite universities, will compose our unsung heroes.Data gathered from the “Equality of Opportunity Project” will inform our analysis alongside qualitative research based on the information posted on each university’s website. We will illuminate some of the unsung heroes’ ‘best practices’ in the hopes that other universities can model their own programs, curricula and policies to improve their social mobility as well.

The schools that we choose to examine and compare to Emory University are as follows:

Cal State LA (9.9% mobility rate)

Pace University (8.4% mobility rate)

SUNY–Stony Brook (8.4% mobility rate)

CUNY system (7.2% mobility rate)

Glendale Community College (7.1% mobility rate)


Mission Statement and Program Analysis

Relative to the unsung heroes, Emory appears to have an alarmingly low mobility rate proportional to the number of lower income students that attend. To provide a potential explanation for this discrepancy, we analyzed the mission statements and programs of some of the unsung heroes and compared them to Emory’s in order to uncover disparities between them.
A university’s mission statement determines the goals and guiding principles of the institution. It follows, therefore, that discrepancies in universities’ mission statements may account for part of their various success rates regarding upward social mobility. In examining their mission statements, it becomes apparent that the unsung heroes seek to push individuals to realize their full potential and help the local community flourish, whereas Emory focuses on the discovery and application of knowledge in general.

Example Mission Statements
Cal State La. (#1 according to Vox): transforms lives and fosters thriving communities across greater Los Angeles. We cultivate and amplify our students’ unique talents, diverse life experiences, and intellect through engaged teaching, learning, scholarship, research, and public service that support their overall success, well-being, and the greater good.

Pace University (#2 according to Vox):  provides to its undergraduates a powerful combination of knowledge in the professions, real-world experience, and a rigorous liberal arts curriculum, giving them the skills and habits of mind to realize their full potential.

CUNY(#6): of vital importance as a vehicle for the upward mobility of the disadvantaged in the City of New York … [to] remain responsive to the needs of its urban setting … [while ensuring] equal access and opportunity”

Glendale (#7): The college serves people from a variety of geographical areas but primarily serves a diverse population of the Greater Los Angeles region that is capable of benefiting from instruction in credit, noncredit, and community education programs.

Emory University: Emory University’s mission is to create, preserve, teach, and apply knowledge in the service of humanity. As an institution dedicated to intellectual discovery and creativity, Emory College is charged both with generating new knowledge and with inventing new ways of understanding what is already known.

While Emory makes efforts to provide financial aid opportunities to its students, the university’s mission statement demonstrates that its overarching focus lies elsewhere (i.e., the pursuit of knowledge, intellectual discovery and creativity). The unsung heroes, on the other hand, focus on the individual and the local community.


Specialized Program Analysis

While researching the unsung heroes, we noticed that some of these schools have specialized programs that target social mobility. Stony Brook University, which is part of the SUNY system, makes a bold statement on its site saying, “Without social mobility — the ability to rise from a low-income background to a financially secure future — the American Dream is at risk.” This promise of social mobility can be especially appealing for prospective students that want access to higher education but also want to minimize student debt, which is exactly what Stony Brook claims to do. One of the possible reasons for Stony Brook’s success in social mobility may stem from the university’s enrichment programs. Stony Brook collaborates with low-income Long Island High Schools by offering students access to summer camp programs, for example. The university’s College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) Pre-College Summer Institute also gives sophomores and juniors from four high-need districts the opportunity in a free week-long program to experience campus life, allowing them to live in dorms and take courses corresponding to their interests. These summer programs give students of low socioeconomic status a glimpse of the opportunities on the Stony Brook Campus, encouraging them to pursue higher education. Furthermore, Stony Brook has created a program called Education opportunity program/Advancement on individual merit (EOP/AIM). The purpose of EOP/AIM is to “ provide access to higher education for economically disadvantaged students who possessed the potential to succeed in college, but whose academic preparation in high school has not fully prepared them to pursue college education successfully…” Because EOP/AIM is geared towards low income students, participants must meet specific income requirements to be eligible for the program. Stony Brook also states, “Much of EOP/AIM’s success can be attributed to a committed team of counselors, advisors and student leaders taking a hands-on approach to academic, personal and professional student development.” With all of these efforts towards specialized programs, it is no mystery that Stony Brook is number 3 in social mobility success.  

Another school that has a specialized program and a high mobility rate is Glendale Community College (GCC). Glendale’s  extended opportunity programs and services (EOPS) aids students that have been disadvantaged through economic, language, social and educational barriers. Some of the services GCC provides include priority registration, counseling, book vouchers and grants, job/career planning and emergency loans. To be eligible for EOPS, students must show that they meet one of the following: “Not qualified for English or Math required for the college degree (based on GCC assessment results), No High School diploma or GED, HS GPA below 2.5, Have taken remedial courses, Use English as a second language, First generation college student, Emancipated foster youth, Member of college identified underrepresented group: African-American/Black, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Hispanic/Latino.” From the perspective of a prospective student, this program can be appealing because the school is providing advantageous opportunities that individuals of low socioeconomic status would have difficulty obtaining otherwise.

Specialized programs such as EOPS and EOP/AIM attract students who come from low-income families, enabling them move up the social ladder. Not all schools that have high social mobility rate have these sorts of programs; however, the schools we have observed show that targeted programs can make a positive impact on a school’s ability to promote social mobility. Emory University, conversely, lacks these specialized programs that are geared towards students of low socioeconomic status. Emory also admits students through a more selective application process, further hindering disadvantaged applicants’ chances of accessing Emory’s resources. Even though Emory provides substantial financial aid, which was found to be Emory’s main appeal in comparison with other elite universities, the university does not reach a vast majority of students that could take advantage of this aid in order to increase their socioeconomic status.


GER Analysis

Every university sets out a program of courses that every undergraduate must pass in order to graduate. Here we will refer to them as General Education Requirements (GERs), although they may be known elsewhere as a “core curriculum,” “university requirements,” or various other names. Despite GERs’ universal presence across universities, they vary from school-to-school, making them a distinguishing feature in the undergraduate education at any given university.

Several of the unsung heroes include civic and community engagement as a core part of the undergraduate curriculum. Picture courtesy of The Blue Diamond Gallery

In our analysis on the unsung heroes’ mission statements, we noted that the unsung heroes emphasize students’ engagement with the local community. Relatedly, several of the unsung heroes require undergraduates to pass a course related to civic engagement. Civic engagement and public values, for example, denotes a category of courses at Pace University that include a community service component, at least one of which (3cu) must be passed by every undergraduate. Civic learning/civic engagement at Cal State, similarly, demarcates courses at Cal State that incorporate “assignments and activities that give [students] practice using disciplinary methods for social justice and the public good,” two of which (6cu) are required for graduation. Stony Brook requires that graduating students have participated in experiential learning (3cu), a category including research, service learning, study abroad, and internships. 

Again relying on our analysis of the universities’ mission statements, Emory is more concerned with the pursuit of factual knowledge and discovery than student’s engagement with the community, which is reflected in its GERs. Emory has the most intensive set of GERs in terms of number of credit hours out of all of the examined universities. Unlike the aforementioned unsung heroes, Emory does not require any courses that focus on civic engagement, instead choosing to focus almost exclusively on academic areas such as math & quantitative reasoning and continued writing. Emory even makes the unique choice to require students to complete two courses (2cu) related to physical education. In fact, with the exception of Stony Brook, the unsung heroes tend not to have extensive GERs, certainly not to the extent of Emory. Perhaps this laxity in GERs allows for more flexibility and individualization in the undergraduate curriculum so that students can self-determine their own educational path.

Evident in this analysis is the conclusion that there is no steadfast formula to create social mobility when it comes to general education requirements. The unsung heroes tend to promote civic engagement along with a flexible curriculum with minimal universally required courses; however, there are exceptions to this rule even within our small sample size.



The first top Unsung Heroes: “California State” and “Pace University” compared to “Emory University”


“Median Household income compared to median child earnings 20 years after graduation after attending California State and Pace University and Emory University respectively”


“Movement of children who reach top 20% coming from the 20% bottom and children reach the 1% coming from the bottom 20% repsectively for California State, Pace Universtiy and Emory University”


Looking at the graph, there is a big difference in the percent of children who reach the top 20% from the bottom 20% in Pace University compared to California State University. It is the same case for the percent of children whio reach the top 1% coming from the a family of the bottom 20%. However, looking at the previous graph, California State is the university which has a higher median household income for the child compared to the parent’s. This gives a sign of a higher mobility rate which is defined as the percent of students coming from a family in the Bottom 20% of the income distribution and reach the Top 20% of the income distribution. This is in fact valid as the mobility rate was reported to be 9,90% for California State compared to 8,4% for Pace University.

It is interesting to see that children who attend California State has a almost half of the median household income that Pace University has. However, when children are to gain income, California Statestudent fill this gap by earning more than their paents unlike Pace Univeisty Students.

There is a trend which can be seen where looking at the university tuittion expenses which is 3302$ for California State and 10437$ for Pace University, the children who attend each respectively have a lower percentage of parents from the bottom 20%. Even though California State is less expensive and children who attend come from a poorer background than Pace Univerity, in general, there is actually ahigher mobility rate for California State than there is for Pace University.  As a result, regarding this data, the children who come from the bottom 20% have a higher chance of changing their economic status than attening a university with a lower percentage of parents coming from the bottom 20% which is reflected in the choice made due to intuition expenses.

Emory University compared to Pace and California State has a much higher median household income. However, the difference in media income that students gain years after isn’t that drastically different from the Unsung heroes. As a result, the two universities are more efficient in making their students earn more once they graduate. It can be said that there is a better worth of money at the two universities than at Emory University.

The annual tuition cost at Emory is around 36 000$ whereas for Pace and California it is 10436$ and 3301$ respectively.

At Emory University it is interesting to see that there is a high percentage of children who reach the top 1% where parents came from the bottom 20% of the income distribution.

However, the children who reach the 20% top of income and come from 20% bottom have a lower rate than Pace University.


Narrative: Megan

These visualizations illuminate interesting correlations between mobility rates of the colleges attended by my immediate family and the economic status of parents of the students, as well as differences in income levels between parents and students.

Mobility Rate: Percent of students who have parents in the Bottom 20% of the income distribution and reach the Top 20% of the income distribution

Upper-Tail Mobility Rate: Percent of students who have parents in the Bottom 20% of the income distribution and reach the Top 1% of the income distribution

Parents in top 1% refers specifically to the percent of parents in the Top 1% of the income distribution.

Parents in bottom 20% refers specifically to the percent of parents in the Bottom 20% of the income distribution.

Median Parent Household Income refers to the average annual income before taxes and transfers, converted to the value in 2015 dollars.

Median Child Individual Earnings in 2014 refers to the sum of wage and self-employment earnings.

I am very fortunate to have come from a family that is middle-upper class and has not experienced any major economic issues. However, my mother, father, and older brother have not had the same comfy upbringing that I had. Yet, they have all ended up in better economic positions than their parents were when they were in college. The Equality of Opportunity Project certainly illuminated some aspects of my family’s college and economic history that may explain the upward mobility my immediate family experienced in their adult years. However, it is important to note that the data may not correctly show the situation at Syracuse and SUNY ESF in 1970.

To begin, my mother went to Syracuse University in 1970 to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree of Arts in Textile Studies. The application process was exceedingly difficult as she was a first generation college student in her family, and being the only daughter, she was expected to stay at home and not get any further education. Without the support systems, she skipped school to tour colleges and do interviews, and worked nearly year-round throughout high school as a waitress. When her parents dropped her off at Syracuse her freshman year, they gave her twenty dollars for textbook money, and that was the only financial help given to her. She estimates that during the time she was in college, her parent’s income totaled $98,700 (in 2015 dollars). Twenty years later, her income totaled $62,200, when she was working as a purchaser for a fashion company.   

My father attended SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in 1969 to pursue a Bachelor’s of Science in Forestry. His family economic situation was slightly better than my mother’s, however, his parents were also supporting the college education of three other children while my father was in college. During his time at college, the household income was about $148,000, while 20 years later he was making $94,900 as an electrical engineer. It should be noted that throughout college, his parents did support him financially.

My brother attended SUNY College at Morrisville in 2004 to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree of Science in Ichthyology. His childhood economic situation was significantly different than mine, considering that only our mother raised him until the age of thirteen. Being a single mother, she did not have the means to save up money for him to attend college, so it was by a stroke of luck—namely winning a large sum of money in an unrelated civil lawsuit—that he was able to go to college debt free. The household income at that time was $169,000, however that number was starkly different from what he grew up with, as my parents only married and began living together in 1997. After college, he went into a trade job as an electrical worker and currently has a yearly income of  $130,000. This amount of income is much more than he had while growing up, and SUNY Morrisville’s emphasis on real world application certainly guided him in his career search post-college.

Finally, the story is wrapped up with my current college experience. By the time I was born, my parents had developed stable incomes and were able to begin saving for my education from an early time in my life. It is not surprising that my parents ensured that “money was not a factor” during my college search, since money was a huge factor for them. Through my family’s stories and experiences I can only empathize with their struggles, so putting together these data visualizations and short narratives is an attempt for me to recognize my privilege, as the economic data for Emory shows. For my immediate family members, most of their economic mobility came from trade jobs that later became leadership positions within a company. I think it is important to point out that perhaps their college choices influenced their career pathseven if the careers had nothing to do with their majors since the colleges they attended focused primarily on the applications of skills learned in local settings, especially at SUNY ESF and SUNY Morrisville. This contrasts with the mission of Emory, which focuses on preparing their students for a globalized world, and uses loftier terms, as delineated above.

Note: all income was corrected for inflation to 2015 levels using CPI Inflation calculator

This visualization reveals an interesting trend in my family’s income levels; as family income during college rose, so did the income levels twenty years after college, nearly in a linear fashion. So while generally my mother, father, and brother were all doing slightly better for themselves than their parents were, the effects of parental income during college were quite influential on adult income later in life.