Sep 3, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Coming from a low-income background is not without its share of challenges. However, new research indicates that public universities don’t just offer a more accessible education; they’re also a powerful “economic equalizer.” Here's a closer look. 

Facilitating Economic Mobility

A  team led by University of California (UC) vice president for Institutional Research and Academic Planning, Pamela Brown, determined some optimistic insights after gathering and analyzing data from the school’s alumni, including the following:

  • Alumni from the lowest income backgrounds go on to earn as much as their middle-income counterparts
  • A third of alumni whose families are in the bottom 20 percent of incomes move to the top 20 percent of incomes.
  • Alumni in every field and discipline double their salaries between two and ten years after graduation

The report also reveals that the majority of the school’s low-income students top their parents in terms of earnings within five years of graduation. Brown said, “It’s one of the indicators that shows how a UC education creates economic mobility for its students.”

Another key finding from the study is the degree to which employment sectors are more important than academic majors when it comes to earnings. “Arts and humanities grads who use their skills in online and computing industries, for example, often earn more than engineering and computer science majors who work in the social service sector,” says a UC release.

Supporting Student Success

The data does not just show how public college degrees help students get ahead, it also identifies areas where there is still work to be done.

For example, while many UC students do go on to graduate school, their likelihood of doing so is influenced by familial factors. Specifically, first-generation college students are less likely than their fellow students to continue beyond their undergraduate degree.

According to Brown, identifying these issues can help institiutional leaders develop and implement interventions aimed at correcting them.


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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