Power to the people

Cal State LA tops nation in upward mobility rates.




Capri Maddox arrived at Cal State LA in 1988 with everything she owned in two well-worn suitcases. The 17-year-old had spent two years on her own with little money, crashing in the homes of various family friends, and working part-time jobs to afford necessities like toothpaste.

Now three degrees and two decades later, Maddox (’91, ’95 M.S.) is the special assistant city attorney for the city of Los Angeles.

Capri Maddox
Capri Maddox, left, and a classmate stand outside the University Club at Cal State LA in 1988. Before becoming the special assistant city attorney for Los Angeles, she served as a deputy city attorney in the central trials, Neighborhood Prosecutor Program, complex litigation and general counsel units. (Photos courtesy of Capri Maddox)

“Cal State LA was definitely the difference-maker,” says Maddox, who earned a juris doctor from Pepperdine University School of Law.

Cal State LA has long viewed itself as an engine of social mobility because of its success in educating its diverse students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. And a new study shows that no university does it better.

Cal State LA is ranked number one in the U.S. based on the upward mobility of its students, according to the study, Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility.

“This research confirms that Cal State LA provides a transformative educational experience,” says Cal State LA President William A. Covino. “We’ve long known this to be true. Now the nation knows.”

The study was developed by The Equality of Opportunity Project, a group of high-level academic researchers from institutions including UC Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard and Brown universities. The study made national news, with stories appearing in The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio and dozens of other news organizations.

The research is based on anonymous tax filings and tuition records from the federal government following 30 million college students from 1999 to 2013. Records from more than 2,000 colleges and universities were studied.

Researchers compared the incomes of college graduates in their 30s from low-income families with that of their parents. The research focused on universities and colleges in the U.S. with more than 900 students born between 1980 and 1982 who attended school at some point between the ages of 19 and 22.

upward mobility chart

The study defines a college or university’s mobility rate as “the fraction of its students who come from a family in the bottom fifth of the income distribution and end up in the top fifth.” According to the study, Cal State LA’s mobility rate is 9.9 percent, while Pace University-New York ranked second with a rate of 8.4 percent.

“This study…really lays the groundwork for future study on how places like Cal State LA can be emulated,” says Robert Fluegge of Stanford University, one of several researchers involved in the study. “We want to understand exactly what is going on at places that look really good by our metrics.”

Cal State LA’s mobility rate is higher than Ivy League universities and others that admit a scant number of students from low-income families.

Making higher education accessible to all, especially low-income students, has been core to Cal State LA’s mission since its founding 70 years ago.

“Education has the power to change the lives of all students, regardless of where they begin in life,” says Cal State LA Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Lynn Mahoney. “Our outstanding faculty and staff understand well the transformative role of public universities. They know what is needed to take students from where they are to where they need to be.”

One such student was George Pla, who grew up in Boyle Heights. His two brothers were handy like their father, a construction worker, but Pla wasn’t.

George Pla
George Pla

“My father put his arm around me and said, ‘son, you need to go to school’,” he recalls.

Pla graduated from Cal State LA in 1972 and went on to earn a master’s degree from USC. Years later, he started Cordoba Corp., a multimillion-dollar civil engineering firm that specializes in major infrastructure projects in the transportation, energy, water and education sectors.

“Public higher education is vital to the success of our nation,” Pla says. “Cal State LA is absolutely golden.”

In order to help other low-income students make the same transition, Pla supports higher education through philanthropy and serves on educational advisory committees, including Cal State LA’s President’s Council.

While highlighting the success of institutions like Cal State LA, the study also underscores the need to research the means by which high mobility rates are achieved—and why some universities do it better than others.

“At Cal State LA we focus on what matters most—our students,” says Vice President Jose A. Gomez.

The support of our programs, faculty and staff not only elevates the students as individuals, Gomez explains, but it also elevates their families and the communities we serve.

“Cal State LA taught me about the importance of giving back, which shaped my interest in public service,” says Maddox, who also serves on the President’s Council. “I wanted to feel the way the folks at Cal State LA felt. They were making a difference and changing lives.”