Numbers and percentages often have a direct relationship. If you raised your grade on a 10-question quiz from 80 percent to 90 percent, it follows that the number of questions you answered correctly increased as well. On the contrary, direct variation may not be the case for colleges in the states. Mobility rates for low-income families at American universities have fallen drastically since the 2000s, according to an article published by The Atlantic. The magazine criticized top ranked colleges, including Stony Brook University, for decreasing its share of students from low-income households while increasing its share of students from high-income backgrounds. However, in January of 2017, the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research ranked Stony Brook University among the top 10 nationwide colleges for creating paths of upward mobility. At first glance, these facts and figures may seem to clash. How can the university be rated highly for both opening and closing its doors to students from poor families?
Historically, Stony Brook University catered to large groups of low-income and minority students, propelling these students from the lower to middle class via a wide range of programs, including the Educational Opportunity Program, intensive academic counseling and Pell Grants. In the late 1990s, more than 50 percent of the students that enrolled at Stony Brook from households with incomes of less than $20,000 a year, graduated and earned salaries of at least $110,000 a year almost two decades later. Today, the public university enrolls higher numbers of students receiving Pell Grants than it has in previous years. University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. seems to take pride on the school’s ability to increase social mobility, claiming that the institution admits “the best and brightest students, regardless of economic status.”
Still an increase of numbers does not necessarily imply an increase in total share. Though the university has enrolled more low-income students, the ratio of these students to non-low-income students has, on the contrary, has been on the decline. Researchers from a Stanford study state that the class share of low-income students, students from families earning less than $37,000 a year, has decreased from above a third in the late 1990s to a quarter in 2017. On the flip side, international freshman enrollment has soared from 5 percent in 2008 to 17 percent in 2016, and domestic out-of-state freshman enrollment has spiked from 4 percent in 2004 to 9 percent by 2017.
Despite these statistics, Stony Brook University can still rank highly for social mobility. Though the percentage of low-income students has decreased, because university enrollment has grown in size over past decades from around 17,000 students in 1990 to about 25,000 in 2017, the total number of enrolled students from the bottom income quintile has risen. In other words, a slice of pizza will of course grow larger if the entire pie itself grows, too. Stony Brook University can clearly assert that it has accepted more and more students of poor status; however, the institution’s claim of “improving access to higher education” is questionable, as the share of low-income students has lowered. So yes, the slice of the pie has grown bigger, but strangely enough, this slice in comparison to the other slices has shrunk.
The debate at hand is more about representation than simply numbers. Should Stony Brook University just focus on increasing the total number of enrolled low-income students, or should it also consider the proportion of these students in regards to the total student body? One might contend that if more students of poor status are being served, then ratios and stakes do not really matter; the slice is growing anyway, so eat and be merry! Still, since the university is a public university, perhaps the institution has a duty to not only serve but also represent those who cannot afford to attend private colleges. In the end, the real question to ask is whether or not Stony Brook University is still a haven for the underdog.