To Climb the Income Ladder, It Helps to Have a Network

5 min readOct 29, 2018

By Michael Collins

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I live in Shaker Heights, Ohio — a community where children amble down the sidewalks of tree-lined streets, past single-family homes framed by manicured lawns, to neighborhood schools. It is a world away from where I grew up.

Like far too many African American children in the United States, I grew up in poverty. I spent my elementary and middle school years in the Northeast, in an inner-city triple-decker a block from a notorious public housing project that has since been razed. This experience is cruelly common; the poverty rate for African American families is almost three times higher than for white families.

But I had several factors in my favor that many young people from low-income families today do not. Completing college was one of the things that made a difference for me.

Now, every night, when I tuck my 7-year-old son into bed, I think about childhood friends and millions of others who do not have the high-level skills and college credentials they need to get good jobs, climb the income ladder, and raise their own children in safe, nurturing environments like Shaker Heights. Creating opportunities for the economic advancement of people at the bottom rung of the income ladder is not just a recurring reflection for me. It is a vocation.

I grew up in poverty. [. . .] Completing college is one of the things that made a difference. . .

Why I Do What I Do

I have worked the last 14 years at JFF, a national nonprofit whose mission is to increase access to economic advancement for all. We work to help people who are stuck at the lower levels of the income ladder gain the skills and credentials they need to get jobs that pay family-supporting wages and contribute to upward mobility. Our postsecondary work is focused on community colleges because they are often the only after–high school institution that is accessible for low-income students.

Michael Collins at Horizons 2018, JFF’s national summit

Going to college and earning a credential that provides access to good jobs appears to be a simple-enough prescription for economic advancement. The problem is that our higher education system does not work well for people who start at the bottom.

A ‘Wicked’ Problem

Trying to increase upward mobility with a college completion strategy is what social policy experts would characterize as a wicked problem. By wicked, they mean that the issue has many interconnected facets that are not easily untangled.

The mobility strategy attempts to simultaneously improve a broad set of these factors — academic under-preparation, inadequate advising and counseling, inefficient transfer of credits, misalignment of credentials earned with available jobs, financial insecurity, and a host of others.

Our Network Strategy

At JFF, we believe that this type of multifaceted challenge requires a multidimensional solution. That’s why we use a network strategy that brings the knowledge of many people with wide-ranging expertise to bear on the many facets of the problem we face.

For more than a decade, JFF has supported the Postsecondary State Network as a key strategy to achieve our mission. Composed of 15 diverse member states, the Network spans community colleges of all sizes and kinds — large urban, mid-size suburban, and small rural. The Network also includes individuals with expertise in the academic, student services, career, and technical sides of college. They collaborate with Network peers who have expertise in policy at the state and system level and with association heads with intimate knowledge of the priorities of community college presidents. They also work with leading organizations involved in community college reform, which assess schools’ needs to improve student success and then broker those critical supports.

The primary focus of the Network is to scale guided pathways — streamlined credential pathways that are aligned with good jobs. JFF supports the Network by:

  • convening community college innovators;
  • disseminating evidence-based best practices;
  • offering policy advisory services; and
  • providing technical assistance and implementation services.

Here are some of the facts we’re fighting.

  • More low-income students enroll in college today than ever before, but they are much less likely to graduate. Only 14 percent of students in the lowest quarter of earners graduate from college, compared to 60 percent of students from families in the top quarter of earners.
  • Most low-income students begin college in less-selective higher education institutions than their upper-income peers. For example, 44 percent of low-income students attend community colleges immediately after high school, compared to only 15 percent of high-income students.
  • Children born to parents in the lowest fifth of income earners tend to remain in the lowest fifth of earners when they become adults. Economists say that the bottom of the income distribution is sticky, meaning that it is very difficult to climb up.

If we increase the number of low-income students who complete high-value college credentials that lead to family-supporting jobs, we can increase the chance they will have to access the resources they need to raise their families in safe, nurturing environments. These environments are conducive to upward mobility, which all children deserve.

We are keenly aware that college is only one factor in the equation for economic mobility. My working-class grandparents’ lifetime savings, for example, helped me graduate. They also provided critical social and emotional support that got me to the finish line. And their sacrifice endures; it allows me to do the same for my son.

Are you working to increase upward economic mobility for low-income people? We’d love to hear from you and join forces. We will be smarter and stronger together.

Connect with the Postsecondary State Network

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Jobs for the Future (JFF) drives transformation of the American workforce and education systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all.