The State System of Higher Education: Pennsylvania’s Mobility Workhorses

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Pennsylvania’s 14 State System of Higher Education Universities are instrumental to economic opportunity in Pennsylvania. They afford a large number of middle- and working-class Pennsylvanians an affordable shot at the American Dream of upward mobility.

Our analysis of data from the Mobility Report Cards finds that 41% of State System students from 1999 to 2004 were working-class students with family incomes that placed them in the bottom 60% of households. As a point of comparison, in the state’s 10 most elite universities just 18% of students come from the bottom 60% (more than 2/3 come from the top 20%).

The combination of this greater access for working-class students and the success these schools have in propelling working-class students to higher incomes results in 22% of their student body having come from the bottom 60% and ended up in the top 40% as adults. In contrast, only 14% of the student body at elite private schools made a similar journey.

When we widen our focus to all public universities (including “state-related” schools – Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln – as well as the State System) we find that public schools account for 59% of mobility “success stories” in Pennsylvania (i.e., 59% of the cases in which students came from bottom 60% households but moved into the top 40% by their thirties).

The State System schools’ lower costs have historically been integral to maintaining access for Pennsylvanians to college and affording them a chance to move up economically. One shouldn’t need to be rich to enjoy economic opportunity. Upward mobility is a key component of the American dream, and the State System is the workhorse of that mobility in Pennsylvania. 

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