Without social mobility — the ability to rise from a low-income background to a financially secure future — the American Dream could be at risk.
In an era of growing income inequality, families have fewer opportunities to better their children’s future. Meanwhile, we endanger a national tradition of innovation and discovery when many of our best and brightest minds are left by the wayside.
For many lower-income and first-generation students, attending college can seem like a pipe dream, with few people guiding them toward higher education.
At Stony Brook University, a committed community of scholars, administrators and students is igniting social mobility by offering a different progression — one that can lead to better outcomes — through a sustained, multipronged outreach before college; a culture of diversity and inclusivity; and on-campus mentoring and support to retain students to graduation.
These outcomes are singled out in a recent study led by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, which concludes that Stony Brook offers a proven path toward upward advancement for students from low-income households, far ahead of many of its better-funded peers, public and private. The University outperforms graduation rates of four-year institutions by race and ethnicity, graduates students who have less debt than those from other institutions, and can assert that 94 percent of its graduates are either employed or continuing their education.
“Social polarization is one of the central challenges of our time, and it happens to be an issue where universities can and must make a difference,” said Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. “The Stanford study is a striking confirmation of Stony Brook’s unique strengths as an exceptionally powerful engine of social mobility. We admit aspiring scholars, regardless of their socioeconomic background. Once they arrive, we offer an environment in which a diverse student body is encouraged to thrive as well as extensive, targeted programs to provide the support they need for academic and social success.”
The multidimensional, directed support makes Stony Brook, one of New York’s top state universities and a State University of New York (SUNY) flagship, three times more effective than Ivy League schools such as Harvard at promoting its students’ rise up the socioeconomic ladder, according to the Stanford study. Stony Brook’s six-year graduation rates bear this out: 78.0 percent for Asian students, 71.3 percent for black students, 70.5 percent for white students and 65.4 percent for Hispanics.
Improving access to higher education is a “top priority” at Stony Brook, President Stanley said, as is minimizing student debt, which is vital to ensuring that economically disadvantaged students receive the support they need to benefit as fully as possible.
An Alternate Path
This combination of factors changed the course of plans for Bergre Escorbores ’00, ’01, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic and was a first-generation college student. Escorbores is now a middle school principal for the Brentwood Union Free School District in Brentwood, New York. When he was in high school in what was considered a tough neighborhood in Queens, New York, even though Escorbores earned good grades and played varsity football, his guidance counselor suggested he skip college to learn a trade.
“College wasn’t the push, but just to graduate high school,” he said.
Then a teacher introduced him to the programs that Stony Brook offered students in his economic situation. Escorbores was determined to become the first in his family to earn a college degree and to use it to help his family move up in the world. Stony Brook offered the tools he needed to get there. Among them were 10 semesters of guaranteed financial aid.
“My issue growing up was my socioeconomic status, not my intellectual capacity,” said Escorbores. “Stony Brook recognized that I didn’t have access to all the resources I needed to be able to succeed.”
Escorbores went on to earn his undergraduate degree at Stony Brook and three advanced degrees, and is one of thousands of students who used the University as a springboard to achieve success they may never have imagined for themselves.
The Stanford study reflects this dynamic. Titled “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility,” it ranks Stony Brook among the top 10 colleges and universities in the nation whose students begin college at the bottom fifth of income distribution and then go on to earn in the top three-fifths.
The 2017 study was produced by five economists, led by Stanford professor Raj Chetty, who examined the progress at 2,463 U.S. colleges of 28.1 million American students between 1999 and 2013. They found that “children from low- and high-income families have similar earning outcomes conditional on the college they attend, indicating that low-income students are not mismatched at selective colleges.”
The study tracked 14 years of financial records for college students, aged 18 to 22, at all public and private U.S. colleges and universities. Using IRS data, researchers compared the reported earnings of college graduates in their early 30s with their parents’ income during their own college years. Researchers examined the percentage of students from each institution and found that Stony Brook graduates its students more swiftly than many others, accelerating social mobility by decreasing student debt, moving graduates into paid employment or pursuing advanced degrees that will boost their later earnings — all keys to rising levels of wealth.
In 2015, 63 percent of Stony Brook graduates were working and 31 percent were pursuing further education, an 8 percent increase in employment over 2011 figures.
In comparison with Columbia University, Stony Brook graduates were shown to have earned incomes “that are nearly comparable,” and Stony Brook “has a bottom-to-top-quintile mobility rate of 8.4%, channeling nearly 3 times as many children from the bottom to the top of the income distribution as Columbia.”
The University admits students from a range of economic backgrounds and aims to help all move to well-paying work, improving their economic circumstances beyond those of their parents. According to the Stanford study, 30.1 percent are from the top quintile of income; those from the bottom, 16.4 percent.
For President Stanley, the school’s focus on fighting income inequality is second nature; as a physician specializing in infectious diseases, he believes his mission is “to think big picture, the way we think in public health. That’s how I think of income inequality and how it runs through the fabric of society. The core of public education is addressing the core needs of society,” he said.
One way the University is helping students work toward improving their economic circumstances is by offering programs to children in kindergarten through 12th grade — especially those who may not believe that higher education is in their future — to get them thinking about college early.
One Stony Brook program geared to that demographic is the Freedom School, created by Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), which oversees a network of Freedom Schools nationwide. Stony Brook became a partner in 2013, establishing the first Freedom School on Long Island and the only one operated on a university campus. The six-week summer enrichment program, which starts with second-graders in low-income districts, is designed to boost motivation to read, generate positive attitudes toward learning, and raise the self-esteem of participants.
Stony Brook’s proximity to and engagement with low-income Long Island high schools provides another way to bridge the gap between potential students and the University by offering access to summer programs, including math and science camps, according to Provost’s Scholar for Diversity and Innovation David Ferguson.
“Introducing potential students early and often to Stony Brook’s community, and having them meet with undergraduates, graduates, PhD students, postdocs and faculty, helps them envision themselves on campus as well,” Ferguson said.
One of these initiatives is a math camp run by David Kahn, assistant professor of mathematics at the Institute for STEM Education (I-STEM). Kahn oversees several I-STEM outreach programs in math and science for middle and high school students that offer access to college resources. Although I-STEM serves all demographics, many students from high-needs school districts enroll in the programs.
“These programs give kids a taste of what it’s like out there and the chance to get better in math and science. Students meet each other and make buddies, and some of them have stayed in touch for years,” said Kahn.
The University’s College of Arts and Sciences Pre-College Summer Institute offers students another opportunity — a free weeklong program aimed at high school sophomores and juniors from four high-needs districts. They stay in a residence hall, tour the campus and take courses based on their interests from various academic areas. The students also attend presentations on financial aid, admissions, study abroad and research prospects.
This experience with Stony Brook programs is gradual acculturation, said Ferguson. “It’s a different world to various high-needs communities. We have them work with undergraduates when they’re in high school, people who’ve also come from similar communities who’ve achieved and done well.”
A key aspect of nurturing social mobility is ensuring that arriving low-income students are ready to work to high standards. The Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), a SUNY program, was created to facilitate the recruitment, enrollment, retention and graduation of economically disadvantaged students who have the potential to succeed in college.
At Stony Brook, social mobility is the result of a partnership between students and educators. Their success is our success.
In the Stony Brook program, locally named EOP/AIM (Educational Opportunity Program/Advancement on Individual Merit), 6,000 students compete for 200 spots. Once accepted, students prepare for freshman year and beyond during five intense summer weeks. The Stanford study highlighted the program’s success, concluding that the University’s EOP participants outperformed all others.
Much of EOP/AIM’s success can be attributed to a committed team of counselors, advisors and student leaders taking a hands-on approach to academic, personal and professional student development. All EOP/AIM students work with their advisors to develop a plan that will carry them through their undergraduate years. Support services — such as financial literacy training, tutoring, peer mentoring and alumni networking — are then customized for each EOP/AIM scholar.
No one is prouder of the Stony Brook program than Cheryl Hamilton, EOP/AIM director from 2000 to 2017.
“I can’t tell you how many of Stony Brook’s EOP students who are bright, who are motivated, have shared with us that somebody along the line told them they were not college material,” said Hamilton, now associate provost and director of opportunity programs at SUNY. “So when they come to Stony Brook, this is the first time that they are seeing a group of professionals and faculty members who are telling them that we believe in them.”
The EOP ecosystem engages students from their first few days on campus. Over time, it transforms raw, nervous, at-risk recruits into students better prepared emotionally and intellectually for the demands of college and what’s to come.
Stony Brook also reaches out to students from community colleges through S-STEM ASSETS (Scholarships for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Academic and Social STEM Excellence for Transfer Students). The program was launched this year with a $1 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help community college mathematics transfer students.
Thomas Woodson, an assistant professor in the Department of Technology and Society, created and led the program’s eight-member, two-week boot camp.
“When community college students arrive at Stony Brook versus those arriving from high school, there’s some difficulty making the transition to the University,” he said. “Some struggle with math, physics or chemistry, and we’re helping them to recalibrate. It’s an effort to give students a head start.”
Guidance Through Graduation
John Friedman of Brown University, one of the Stanford study’s authors, said Stony Brook’s success in creating social mobility opportunities might be related to how well the University advises students once they’re enrolled, tailoring their studies to prevent them from wasting time, effort and money.
“What’s really striking about Stony Brook is that students are arriving from low-income backgrounds, but their outcomes are extremely high,” Friedman said.
Compared with other colleges in the study, Stony Brook has “double or triple” the number of low-income students, but the students haven’t suffered lower outcomes as a result. Moving people up the ranks is a key piece of the Stony Brook ethos, Friedman added. It’s built into the culture, and that inspires success.
“At Stony Brook, social mobility is the result of a partnership between students and educators. Their success is our success,” said Charles Robbins, vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of the undergraduate colleges.
Robbins spoke about how the University identifies and remediates the special challenges faced by young people from underrepresented groups as part of its mission, offering robust support but never compromising on the rigor of teaching and research.
“Expanded access alone is not enough,” said Robbins. “Providing a genuinely world-class university education is essential to achieving social mobility.”
To that end, Ferguson works across campus to enhance diversity in the undergraduate and graduate populations, and among faculty and professional staff. One of the efforts that he helped to spearhead is STEM Smart, a collection of diversity-in-STEM efforts within the Department of Technology and Society. Three of several key foundational programs under STEM Smart are the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP), serving K–12 students, funded by the New York State Department of Education; Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP), serving undergraduates, funded by the New York State Department of Education; and Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), geared toward science and engineering, funded by the NSF.
“STEM Smart is the umbrella under which we have a number of diversity programs for a broad range of individuals and populations,” Ferguson said. “Among them, first-generation college students, economically disadvantaged first-generation college students, ethnic minority groups, racial minority groups and women.”
Madeline Augustin was a CSTEP and LSAMP student who earned her bachelor’s in engineering science from Stony Brook in 2005. Now an enterprise corporate auditor for the Boeing Company, she is in a special accelerated leadership program for high performers. But her journey to success had some bumpy starts.
Augustin left Haiti and arrived in Brooklyn, New York, at age 9. While English wasn’t her first language, early on she excelled at math and science, she said, participating in extracurricular programs and internships through high school that affirmed chemical engineering was what she wanted to pursue. Her parents, who had not yet received their high school diplomas, thought their oldest daughter’s only path to success was as a doctor or nurse.
“At age 17, I created a PowerPoint to show them the cost-benefit analysis of having an engineer versus a doctor in the family,” she said. “They weren’t convinced, but as the first in my family to pursue a college education, I was determined.”
She soon discovered that her dream had challenges. She arrived at Stony Brook in 2003 as a third-year transfer student after struggling at another college.
She had a wake-up call when her mid-terms yielded a 2.0 GPA. She made the decision that if she didn’t do well that semester, she would quit Stony Brook and change her path. Then she joined the University’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and attended the conference workshop “Guaranteed 4.0.”
“That turned me around,” said Augustin, who is now based in Charleston, South Carolina. “It taught me new skills that included cutting back on my hectic schedule outside of classes and studying smarter. I ended up turning it into a 3.56 semester.”
With renewed confidence, she was able to refocus how she approached college.
STEM Smart is the umbrella under which we have a number of diversity programs for a broad range of individuals and populations.
“I feel like I had a better chance of succeeding at Stony Brook because the focus was more student-centric than industry-centric,” said Augustin. “They really wanted you to understand the concept of what you were working on in the classroom or lab.”
The Boeing engineer has since earned two more degrees.
In addition to the mentoring that students like Augustin receive in the classroom, numerous programs are in place to support them through their studies. For instance, technology plays a role in social mobility by gathering data that help Stony Brook quickly identify those struggling, said Richard Gatteau, associate provost for academic success.
“We look at retention and progress to see who is off track. Since 2014 we’ve been able to do much more outreach and can use data we’ve collected. Who needs attention and in what area? Technology has been huge for us,” he said.
Providing career development prospects for students is another important tool — not only for supporting students while they’re at Stony Brook, but also after they graduate. Marianna Savoca, director of the University’s Career Center, said the philosophy is to begin that process early.
“It starts with a campus job, which the overwhelming majority of freshmen secure while attending classes,” she said. “SBU is one of the leading voices in the nation talking about the value that a high-impact campus job can have for student success. While we cannot influence the jobs students obtain off campus, we have the opportunity to make their campus work experience developmental, meaningful and filled with opportunity for learning and skill development.”
According to Savoca, students who learn foundational workplace skills and behaviors through their campus jobs are better connected to campus resources and better positioned to compete for career-relevant internships in their sophomore and junior years. That, in turn, makes them more marketable and competitive in the workplace.
Every program designed to help support disadvantaged students is free, thanks to funding from the University and from state and federal sources and foundations, Ferguson said.
Local and national scholarships are available, and students with the greatest need are rarely turned away. “Social mobility is the additive value of all of these things,” he said.
Philanthropic donations are one of the main reasons these programs can last and new programs continue to be developed.
For instance, the Women’s Leadership Council, which was founded in 2013, pairs 15 female mentors — some alumni, some friends of the University — with 15 to 20 selected female juniors and seniors. Mentors make an individual personal philanthropic commitment and give students in the Council personal and powerful access to highly successful female role models.
Our donors understand the critical importance of social mobility, and they’re delighted to see that their investments are paying off in the form of concrete student success.
“Through programs like this, we’ve closed the gap between those who have and those who don’t,” said Dexter A. Bailey Jr., senior vice president for University advancement. “Stony Brook gives them the means to level the playing field.”
Bailey knows the importance of donated dollars, such as those from the Corey Foundation, which supports local high school students who choose Stony Brook.
“Our donors understand the critical importance of social mobility, and they’re delighted to see that their investments are paying off in the form of concrete student success,” Bailey said.
As part of his personal commitment to social mobility, President Stanley also donates to the school. In 2012, he and his wife, Ellen Li, MD, PhD, director of GI translational research, Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Stony Brook Medicine, donated $125,000 of their own funds to create an endowed scholarship for Stony Brook medical students.
“One of the roles of the President is to have a vision and inspire people,” he said. “I think the audience is very receptive. We focus on access to excellence. In a time of budgetary constraints, philanthropy is more important than it has ever been.”
Philanthropy, to be sure, is just one part of what President Stanley called a team effort that involves the entire University community.
“Donors, faculty, administrators — and, crucially, the students themselves — work together enthusiastically to create a climate that nurtures success,” he said.
In the end, Stony Brook’s social mobility accomplishment is as much about teaching people to hope, trust in themselves and strive for a greater future as it is about imparting knowledge and exercising critical reasoning.
“There’s no button or silver bullet to create social mobility,” Robbins said. “The work we do is academic, but it’s much more than that: The Stony Brook community offers students the structure to pull them across the finish line and to make a difference in their lives.”
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Liza N. Burby is managing editor of Stony Brook Magazine and an award-winning journalist and author. Caitlin Kelly is a nonfiction author and journalist in Tarrytown, New York, who freelances for The New York Times.