A More Important March Madness: Advancing Low-Income Kids


By Ron Trowbridge

There’s a new March Madness in town:  not the one advancing basketball teams, but the one advancing low-income kids from poor homes up the ladder of financial success to the upper rungs.

Research scholar Jorge Klor de Alva, president of Nexus Research and Policy Center, has designed “an Income Mobility Tournament bracket based on how well each school helps its students reach the American Dream of upward mobility.” For these mobility scores, he draws on a “data set created by the Harvard-based Equality of Opportunity Project, which combines millions of anonymous income tax returns with information on thousands of American colleges.”

The brackets consist of the usual 68 schools, but this time with the highest degree of student success in the country for poor kids.  The mobility brackets advance based on how well each participating school manages to move its students to the top quintile of the income distribution although their parents came from the bottom quintile.  Says Klor de Alva, “For 2019, our adjusted mobility rate calculates for each college the percentage of low-income students—those who originated in the bottom 40 percent—who reached earnings in the upper 40 percent of household income by their early 30’s.”

Together, the 68 schools participating in the NCAA tournament have succeeded in making the income leap possible for some 177,000 students out of their total student population of some 1,563,000—an impressive 11 percent.  These 177,000 represent almost 60 percent of the 306,000 who attended these colleges while their parents’ income was in the bottom 40 percent of wage earners.  All Sweet 16 Income Mobility Tournament champs have scores above 0.63, meaning that 63 percent or more of their low-income students make it to the top two quintiles of income distribution.  For these Sweet 16, the six-year graduation rate is a high 84 percent.

The current college admissions scandal is relevant here:  wealthy parents are buying seats in the very same schools that contribute the most to the upward mobility of low-income students, preempting these qualified poor kids from admission.

Of the top 68 teams in the country, the Final 8 Income Mobility Tournament teams are:  Villanova, Michigan, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Iona, Marquette, Iowa State, and Yale—with the winners of the two finals brackets being Villanova and Michigan.  Villanova gets to cut down the figurative nets.

On the other hand, there is real basketball.  But the relative professional success for basketball players is, well, terrible:   says Klor de Alva, “less than one senior in 75 playing in the tournament will be lucky enough to be drafted by an NBA team.”

We can rightly conclude that the final 68 academic teams “are far more deserving of recognition than even those great schools with winning basketball teams.”

You’d better believe, however, that as a former varsity athlete at Michigan (track), I’ll be glued to the TV set watching the basketball tournament.  I enrolled at Michigan dead broke.  Go Blue.

Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph. D.

Senior Research Scholar, Nexus Research and Policy Center, San Francisco, California


















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