College and Intergenerational Mobility: New Evidence from Administrative Data
Danny Yagan, UC Berkeley
What is the role of college in the intergenerational transmission
of income inequality? This project will tackle this question
using population-level administrative data to characterize the
distribution of parent and student income across the hierarchy of
U.S. colleges in order to understand (a) where students from rich
and poor families attend college, (b) what explains the
substantial variation in poor student enrollment across similarly
ranked colleges, and © what share of the persistence of
inequality across generations is explained by the colleges
children attend. Our preliminary results using incomplete data
are striking: we find that at America’s top-10 colleges, more
students come from families in the top 1% of the income
distribution than from families in the entire bottom half of the
income distribution combined. We further find that one’s college
statistically explains the vast majority of the intergenerational
transmission of income inequality. Subsequent analyses will focus
on the role of community colleges and public universities in
providing children from low-income backgrounds with upward
To facilitate future research by other scholars in this area, we aim to publicly release comprehensive tables of poor-student and rich-student enrollment for each college along with estimates of their graduates’ subsequent earnings trajectories.
The results will illuminate the role of certain colleges as gateways to economic success and will highlight policies (e.g., more inclusive admission policies rather than lower tuition costs) that may be particularly likely to increase poor-student enrollment and thus enhance upward mobility.
This proposed grant will fund the crucial ingredient for project success: the time and travel necessary to analyze the missing administrative data on the very poorest college enrollees, which will make this analysis comprehensive and authoritative.