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By: Austin Cook, Spring 2022 Ethics and Policy Intern

List on a chalkboardSocial mobility is defined as the movement of individuals or groups between social strata; it correlates one’s economic background with their ability to “climb the social ladder.” In this blog, you’ll read about higher ed accessibility and how UNC-Chapel Hill and other universities can best prepare and accommodate lower-income students, and how we are already taking steps towards becoming a more equitable institution despite bottlenecks in the system.

Social mobility is dependent on society’s ability to factor in and provide extra assistance to students—or strivers—who are met with obstacles due to their previous life experiences. “Striver” is a term coined by former UNC professor Jennifer Morton, author of Moving Up Without Losing Your Way, and refers to lower-income or first-generation college students who see higher ed as the way out of existing situations that may hold them back from advancing socially and economically. Given the importance of higher education for social mobility, this blog will look at strivers’ prospects in applying to and enrolling in UNC-Chapel Hill.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s current social mobility statistics, conceptualized by a New York Times study, indicate that economic segregation is more prevalent in higher education than previously thought. UNC-Chapel Hill’s statistics reflect that it has a rather low social mobility ranking: only 1.2% of students who come from poor families become rich adults, 56th out of 64 other elite colleges. Roughly 60% of UNC-Chapel Hill students start in the top 20% of family income, so there is not much higher to climb on their social ladders. How can the University improve the numbers reflecting upward social mobility and become a more practical and accessible option for lower-income students?

Considering new theories of equal opportunity is helpful when reviewing these statistics. In his book Bottlenecks, UCLA Law Professor Joseph Fishkin elaborates on social mobility by introducing his idea of opportunity pluralism. Fishkin defines opportunity pluralism as expanding the number and kind of opportunities available to people at all stages of life instead of attempting (and inevitably failing) to equalize them for all parties. He emphasizes the prevalence of bottlenecks, or obstacles, to opportunity pluralism and therefore social mobility. He categorizes them in a few ways, but I will focus here on the impact of developmental bottlenecks in the context of higher education accessibility. Developmental bottlenecks “occur when there are critical, developmental opportunities that people must pass through in order to develop important abilities or skills, such as learning how to read, that are needed to pursue the paths society offers,” according to Ann E. Kudd, a Bottlenecks reviewer. This suggests that universities should focus on equity instead of equality. Recognizing the need to factor in a student’s lived experiences and accommodate those experiences is essential to providing different levels of resources based on what different people need to succeed.

Fishkin’s book also introduces the concept of a “big test:” an abstract assessment that determines one’s own opportunity pluralism. For many high school students, the big test isn’t theoretical, but a tangible source of anxiety manifested in the SAT and ACT. These particular big tests are primary bottlenecks to college admission and therefore later financial success. Specifically, the big test is a qualification bottleneck, one that Fishkin says occurs “when accessing a particular opportunity requires a certain narrowly defined qualification, such as a bachelor’s degree,” or in this case, a certain score needed to be favorably considered for college admission. The big test theory falls under Fishkin’s idea of society’s fair equality of opportunity, which rewards effort and merit without factoring in lived experiences that may put students at a disadvantage to accessing and achieving their goals. Fishkin and Morton both view this concept as harmful because of its inability to accept the instrumental role that families and backgrounds play in how our lives are shaped and the opportunities available to us.

The ACT and SAT are good examples of the misnomer of “fair” equality of opportunity. The tests aim to level the playing field for students, crunching down all qualitative data into cold, hard numbers that can’t be interpreted with any “ifs, ands, or buts.” In reality, these scores aren’t entirely reflective of a student’s qualification or academic preparation for college. The College Board released data that indicate there is a disparity between minority and white students’ SAT scores, furthering the argument that it is not fairly distributed to students of all backgrounds—and even if scores were fairly distributed, there are barriers to taking the test, like its cost. For low-income students, test-prep measures like tutoring may not be economically feasible, especially if it would mean having to reduce funds otherwise available for rent or groceries, according to Adirondack Daily Enterprise. Although the College Board was formed as an organization to expand college access for students by emphasizing on standardized testing, it is problematic for that same reason since standardized tests do not allow for a holistic view of the student.

But there is hope: there has been a recent rise in the number of schools implementing test-optional policies, allowing students to opt in to ACT or SAT submission to the colleges to which they are applying, in an aim to increase the number of applicants from rural and diverse backgrounds. Recently, the UNC System decided to remain test-optional until Fall 2024 after initially waiving the requirement due to COVID-19 and test accessibility. This is a step in the right direction for higher education institutions and expands access to UNC-Chapel Hill, increasing our potential for strivers’ social mobility.

The big test isn’t the only thing holding lower-income students back from a college degree, though. The “sticker price” of attending college is another major barrier preventing lower-income students from attending some institutions, including UNC-Chapel Hill. The list price for one year of undergraduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill in the 2021-2022 school year is roughly $25,000 for an in-state student and $53,000 for an out-of-state student. Fishkin notes that while we may not be able to entirely rid society of the big test or other bottlenecks, we can adjust our reaction to them. Although a full scholarship is life-changing, access to it is usually limited because UNC-Chapel Hill cannot afford to provide a full scholarship to every lower-income student. Knowing this, UNC-Chapel Hill offers financial subsidies for need-based students, opportunities for work-study programs, and aid made possible by the Carolina Covenant scholarship and others like it.

Reducing the cost of attendance and eliminating some barriers to admission are good first steps to increasing social mobility. Institutions of higher education should also consider how to make a student’s college experience equitable and worthwhile, without disregarding their backgrounds. UNC-Chapel Hill has initiatives in place to make student experiences more equitable, beyond just the tuition and fees. Carolina Next, UNC-Chapel Hill’s strategic plan, outlines eight strategic initiatives for the University in the coming years and demonstrates a clear emphasis on removing barriers to higher education. The goals of both the institution and the students themselves are important to recognize, and Carolina Next does just that. In my opinion, the most important of these initiatives from a social mobility perspective include (1) Build Our Community Together, (2) Strengthen Student Success, and (3) Enable Career Preparation.

Building community together emphasizes diversity, equity, and inclusion within the university. To UNC-Chapel Hill, this means requiring policies and infrastructure to reshape themselves around such values, enhancing the benefits of student enrollment, retention, and graduation. Strengthening student success focuses on expanding remote and digital accessibility within and around the institution, educating students and staff about the fair use of data, and providing an equitable student-centered experience. Enabling career development includes an integration of career preparation for students and alumni, as well as improving opportunities for staff success.

UNC-Chapel Hill is taking strides to improve social mobility on an institutional level, but the job is never finished. To read more about the University’s plan for the future, visit Carolina Next.

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