Letter to the Editor: Low-income students need better outcomes

By Sid Kincaid

At the beginning of the fall semester, NIU Today published that NIU was recognized as a leader by the Brookings Institution. This statement was repeated by Matt Streb, NIU chief of staff at the NPR State Budget forum on Oct. 17. However, after reading the report and sifting through the data, I believe this title is undeserved.

The authors of the Brookings report write that “we make no claims about causality or the social mobility ‘value added’ of particular universities,” so it is doubtful they intended to create a leaderboard per se. The report merely argues that there are too many American universities that benefit the upper-middle class instead of creating social mobility, and that universities which don’t produce significant research in lieu of it are unworthy of investment by state governments.

If a university is enrolling students such that they are a representative sample of the populace, then the share of students that it has from the top quintile of family incomes should be 20 percent, but in reality it’s 31 percent on average at public universities. At NIU, it’s 40 percent. This means that a larger portion of the student body at NIU are from higher income families. Furthermore, only 5.4 percent of the student body are from families in the bottom quintile of incomes – worse than 261 other public universities. So, in terms of accessibility, NIU typifies schools that benefit the upper-middle class.

If you merge Brooking’s categories and compare NIU to institutions that don’t produce significant research but do provide significant social mobility, a measure of accessibility for low-income students multiplied by the rate of economic success of those students, its ranking is no longer 58th out of 70 but 189th out of 342. NIU’s social mobility of 1.6 percent is just above the cutoff of 1.57 percent – a figure chosen by Brookings because it is the median of all selective public and private universities. NIU isn’t an outlier but rather among the crowd.

I’m not entirely confident NIU Today even bothered to look at the data carefully because Brookings published it initially sorted on the share of students from the top quintile. When the data is sorted by the correct criteria that Brookings used in categorizing schools as ladders and leaders, social mobility, NIU’s position falls. In any case, NIU could be doing better. It can start by researching and answering why don’t more of its low-income students have better outcomes.