Rock-bottom social mobility score surprises BYU community

A student walks past the entrance of Brigham Young University in Provo
Editor's note:

An abbreviated version of this post first appeared in the Deseret News.

Brigham Young University’s flagship campus scores surprisingly poorly on promoting upward social mobility.

Last month, a team of researchers, led by Raj Chetty of Stanford University and John Friedman of Brown University, released a new report estimating “mobility ratings” for nearly all colleges in the country. The ratings represent how well institutions enable students from low-income backgrounds to both access and reap the benefits of college.

On this mobility metric, BYU ranked 2,125 out of 2,137 institutions. Only 12 fared worse. Compared only among Division I research universities, BYU occupies the bottom spot.

Being a proud Cougar alum and an education policy researcher, this news hit hard. It felt alien to my own experience, in which I used federal Pell Grant assistance to foot tuition expenses and now, nearly 20 years later, I feel lucky to have risen significantly above my modest upbringing.

Confronted with this uncomfortable finding, I dug deeper and consulted with the study’s authors about BYU’s anomalous result. In doing so, I learned BYU is much more selective—and not in a good way—than I thought. Let me explain why BYU and those invested in it should pay serious attention to its selectivity.

Access versus success

The mobility ratings are the product of a college’s access rate multiplied by its success rate. Access measures the share of students entering from parents’ households with incomes in the bottom 20 percent nationally. Success represents the share of students from low-income families ending up in the nation’s top 20 percent of earners as 30-something adults.

The authors readily concede the rankings understate BYU’s success (ranked in the top 20 percent nationally), likely due to marriage and family choices. BYU has one of the highest marriage rates nationwide. Also, a conspicuously high number of female former BYU students do not participate in the labor force as 30-somethings; presumably many are at home raising kids by choice, not because of unemployment.

Indeed, alternate definitions of success paint a rosier picture. Calculating BYU’s success rate among males only, or using total household income, places BYU among the nation’s top 10 and 15 percent, respectively.

But success has never been BYU’s problem. Rather, the problem is access for low-income students.

BYU’s access rate for low-income students is lower than 99 percent of all colleges nationally. Less than 2 percent of students come from households with incomes in the bottom 20 percent. It has a lower access rate than most institutions typically considered elite, including Stanford, Duke, and seven out of eight Ivy League colleges, including Harvard and Yale.

Moreover, BYU’s access rate has been declining over the past 10 years, according to the study’s data.

The poverty mirage

I doubt anybody who has spent time on campus thinks of BYU students as particularly well heeled. Having come from large families, most are adept at stretching budgets at discount grocers. Having served missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (widely known as Mormons) in third-world countries, many are satisfied to live in simple apartments. The Pell Grant recipient rate, a common measure of need among students, suggests that BYU, at 37 percent, is pretty accessible.

Yet, this number is perhaps misleading. Pell Grant eligibility is based on current household need, and many BYU students marry as undergrads and their new households—now independent of parents’ resources—are quite needy. More mature students, particularly returned missionaries, may be entirely self-sufficient and file taxes independent of parents. Combined, these factors nudge the Y’s Pell numbers upward, but does not accurately portray BYU students’ upbringings.

Temporary poverty while in college, however, is entirely different than being brought up in poverty. For the former group, financial help in hard times may just be a phone call away while the latter group has no such luxury.

We need to recognize that difference. And once we do, BYU’s modest, provident culture is shown to be a temporary poverty mirage.

Increasing access

Income inequality in the U.S. has been increasing since the 1970s and intergenerational upward mobility has fallen since the 1940s. Attendance at a high-quality college for a low-income student could have implications over generations.

Unfortunately, low-income students are largely absent from the very institutions that are the most likely to improve their outcomes. Rather, they disproportionately enroll at two-year and for-profit colleges, often at greater cost and with lower chances of success.

In other words, income—not merit—increasingly determines access to quality college options; a worrisome development for the American dream of upward mobility. Due to these trends, calls for greater socio-economic diversity in the nation’s top colleges are growing.

As a leading university, BYU needs to consider how it can increase its socio-economic diversity.

Recent research bolsters this proposition, suggesting an ample supply of high-achieving, low-income students exists and could do roughly as well as more affluent peers in the same schools. But for a variety of reasons, they never choose to apply to selective universities like BYU.

Instead, they set their sights lower, often far lower, and go to schools without admissions standards or sometimes just never enroll. Their potential simply goes unrealized.

Yes, it may take some creativity to find these students. After all, BYU is attractive primarily to Mormons, a relatively well-educated and affluent populace, and located in Utah, a state with low levels of poverty. But not all Mormons and Utahans are above the poverty line; I encourage the Y to try reaching more of those below it.

To put this in perspective, let’s talk numbers. Most selective private universities have access rates between four and 10; elite universities range from three to four. Even the lower values of these ranges represent accessibility rates over 50 or 100 percent higher than BYU’s current rate.

Though it sounds challenging, the actual numbers behind them are manageable. With 6,000 incoming students each year, 2 percentage points represent 120 low-income students given an amazing shot at success, a 1 percentage point jump is just 60. I’m confident BYU can rise to this modest challenge.

Many worry that increasing socio-economic diversity will inherently lower standards, but that is not necessarily true. BYU could learn from the American Talent Initiative, a consortium of 30 elite colleges committed to graduating an additional 50,000 low-income students by 2025 while maintaining rigorous standards.

Some schools have simply tweaked admissions criteria away from measures most strongly correlated with income. For example, assigning less weight to SAT or ACT scores and more weight to GPAs have made some colleges more accessible to disadvantaged students. Consider removing points for extracurricular activities, as they may be a luxury for teens working to help with family finances.

Creating access means more than offering cheap tuition. It means actively identifying those who have real potential and inspiring them to take a leap of faith. As they succeed, together we can all rise and shout.