Economic Diversity and Social Mobility at Christian Colleges

Back in November 2012 I wondered about the economic diversity of Christian and church-related colleges and universities. “While I’m glad to see more attention being given to the treatment of women and people of color on Christian college campuses,” I wrote, “it also makes me realize how little I’ve heard us talk about a third potential inequality: that based on socioeconomic class.” But using student survey data from the Higher Education Research Institute, I found that “religious (but not Catholic) colleges and universities are the only category of private schools at which a majority of students have parents who make less than $75,000.” Moreover, 37% of students at members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) received Pell Grants, federal aid given based on demonstrated financial need, as opposed to 27% of their peers at Catholic diocesan, Franciscan, and Jesuit colleges and universities.

CCCU signThat was almost five years ago. So how are such institutions doing today? Last month the New York Times made available research on economic diversity and social mobility in higher ed. The authors of the Equality of Opportunity study looked at anonymous tax records for 30 million students born between 1980 and 1991, giving them data on most of the country’s institutions of higher learning — including household income of entering students (a measure of economic diversity) and income levels for graduates (a gauge of education’s contribution to social mobility).

At least among elite schools, the researchers found that “the share of students from the bottom 40 percent [of households by income] has remained mostly flat for a decade.” Despite much lip service being paid to affordability and increased number of Pell recipients, “The poor have gotten poorer over that time, and the very rich have gotten richer.” At the same time, however, “lower-income students end up earning almost as much on average as affluent students who attend the same college.”

But, as is often the case with media coverage of higher education, the Times was focused on “top colleges” (the Ivies plus a few other select research universities like Stanford and Duke), plus less-famous state schools that admit much higher numbers of working class students and produce higher degrees of social mobility.

But what about Christian and church-related colleges? I went through the data shared by the Times for all the members I could find of three consortia: the CCCU (93 of 115 full members available), the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (all 28), and the colleges and universities related to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (25 of the 26). Here are the averages I found:

Median student household income

Students in top 20% of household income

Students in bottom 20% of household income

Graduates moving up 2+ quintiles in income
















Christian College Consortium members





CCCU minus CCC members





I’ll embed my spreadsheet at the bottom of the post so that readers can play around with the data themselves. (And look at the Times’ interactive tool for far more data on each school.) Just a few observations:

• There’s a considerable spectrum of economic diversity among CCCU schools, far more so than in the other two religious consortia. For example, seven of the CCCU’s members get a majority of their students from the top 20% of households by income, but five actually enroll more students from the bottom than the top quintile in that same category — and that’s not true of a single ELCA or AJCU school.

Muhlenberg College
With a median household income of over $188,000, Muhlenberg College ranked highest in that category among ELCA schools — only 1.2% of its students come from the bottom income quintile

• I’ll leave it to someone with more statistical acumen to check this, but it certainly seems like there’s a high correlation between student affluence and academic reputation — especially among CCCU schools. If you pull out the thirteen CCCU members that make up the Christian College Consortium (CCC), their average student household income exceeds the remainder of the CCCU by almost twenty thousand dollars, with 42% of their students coming from the top quintile and only 5% from the bottom.

• Almost all of the CCCU schools at other end of the household income list are located in the southeast. (New York’s Nyack College is a notable exception; it has a lower household income and higher share of low-income students than any other college in the CCCU — and, as previously noted here, it’s the most ethnically diverse member of that set as well.) Back in 2012, that region also accounted for most of the CCCU’s highest performers in social mobility, as calculated by Washington Monthly. And most of those schools are affiliated with Baptist or Holiness-Pentecostal denominations.

• Full disclosure: my own employer (part of the CCC) has the 8th highest median household income in the CCCU group. But Bethel would be somewhere in the middle of the pack for the Lutheran and Jesuit consortia. Eleven Jesuit institutions have a higher household income than Wheaton College, the leader in the category for the CCCU and CCC.

Blanchard Hall
Blanchard Hall, Wheaton College – Creative Commons (Albert Herring)

• Perhaps the most confusing results have to do with the resulting income of graduates. Across all three groups, entering students from wealthy homes end up placing an average of 6-7 percentile places ahead of their poorer peers in eventual income level. And for each group, 15% of students move up at least two quintiles in income. (Only one in 10 Bethel graduates shows that degree of mobility.) But there’s a considerable amount of variation; at least among the CCCU set, it’s not that unusual for lower-income graduates to end up making more money than their wealthier peers.

• And that might reflect the way those schools emphasize certain views of vocation and service. For example, Bethel trains large numbers of teachers, social workers, and pastors — professionals who will end up in the middle of the income pack but tend to find their work highly meaningful. I’d be curious to know the relative household income of the students taking such paths; my guess is that a significant share of them come from affluent backgrounds.

So, finally, let me close by emphasizing that social mobility is not the highest goal of Christian or church-related education. These schools could be fulfilling their missions to an impressive degree and still come off quite poorly by the income-based measures used in the Equality of Opportunity study.

But the figures on economic diversity are troubling. Even in a sector of higher education shaped by a religion that claims no difference of race, gender, or class for those who live “in Christ,” it seems that there is significant economic segregation — with wealthy, elite institutions attracting many rich and few poor students, while less well-endowed schools (whose faculty are often paid less for more teaching and mentoring work) serve much higher numbers of lower-income students.

4 thoughts on “Economic Diversity and Social Mobility at Christian Colleges

  1. The category of “Jesuit” rather than “Catholic”–although completely accurate–is likely non-probative for the general reader, if not downright misleading. “Jesuit” schools are singled out as particularly unresponsive if not downright hostile to Catholic teaching.

    [T]he approach taken by some Jesuit institutions in order to expand their brand appeal for a decreasingly Catholic applicant pool can undermine their Catholic identities.

    Traci McBee, a fundraising assistant director from Regis College in Denver, reportedly said, “We hide the word ‘Catholic’ from prospective students… We focus on the Jesuit piece rather than the Catholic piece. We’re able to transform a little quicker because we are not waiting for the archbishop to give us permission. We don’t have to ask the Pope when we want to make changes.” Furthermore, as the Atlantic reports, neither “Jesuit” nor “Catholic” is found “in the school’s definition or its brand platform.”

    And as we all know, Notre Dame and other putatively Catholic schools are also under fire for their on-again/off-again commitment to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Since the [in]famous Land O’Lakes Statement of 1967, many of these schools have asserted a theological independence from the Church, despite being explicitly corrected by John Paul II in his 1990 Ex corde Ecclesiae.

    Except for Catholic University and several others who recognize the authority of Mother Church, the designation of “Catholic” remains problematic. “Jesuit” as used here is indeed the accurate description; that it’s not synonymous with “Catholic” likely comes as a surprise to those without ecclesial scorecards.

  2. That would depend, Tom, on whether you adhere to a conservative Catholic view that is has no room for growth and is stuck in the 18th century or adhere to a liberal Catholic view which has room for growth in an ever-changing world.

  3. Thanks for your summary charts. My daughter is a senior in high school and is choosing between SPU, Calvin, and Bethel. Interestingly, all three schools are all clumped together in family incomes–and quite removed from the national household median of $54k. Having worked for 15 years in ELCA higher education, I feel ambivalent about the rather obvious link between perceived academic quality and parental financial resources.

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