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“The fading American dream:” President McInnis’ discussion with Raj Chetty

Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis speaks at a reception in celebration of the University winning a bid to build “The Exchange,” a $150 million project on Governors Island. McInnis held a presidential lecture on April 27 with Harvard Professor Raj Chetty on the shrinking middle class in America. CAMRON WANG/THE STATESMAN

Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis — in conjunction with the Gujavarty Seminar on Leadership and Values and the Mattoo Center for Indian Studies — held a presidential lecture with Raj Chetty, a professor of public economics at Harvard University. 

The lecture was held in the Charles B. Wang Center on Thursday, April 27, with an audience of about 50 people which included Stony Brook students, members of the Gujavarty Seminar and Mattoo Center and economics professors. 

Chetty is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and the John Bates Clark medal, which is given to American economists under the age of 40. 

His research as the head of Opportunity Insights at Harvard has garnered national attention for its revelations on economic opportunity in the U.S. and how institutions of higher education, such as Stony Brook, make an impact on social mobility. 

The lecture began with McInnis recognizing the founding director of the Mattoo Center Mario Mignone and Dr. Krishna Gujavarty, founder of the Gujavarty Seminar. 

The seminar series has hosted lectures from prominent figures including former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas and former Senior Vice President of Northwell Health Dr. Ram Raju. 

McInnis explained that through Chetty’s research, Stony Brook was found to be a national leader in lifting low-income students out of poverty. She then gave the stage to Chetty to further explain his research and its practical implications. 

Chetty began his lecture by revealing how over the past few decades in America, children have been earning just as much or even less income than their parents. 

“America at least aspires to be a place where through hard work, any child can go on to have a higher standard of living than their parents did,” Chetty said. “It’s become a 50/50 shot, a coin flip, if you’re going to achieve the American dream.”

He and his team were able to conduct this research by connecting data from tax records of the early 1980s to the parents of 20 million children and tracking down those children during the subsequent decades. 

Through this research, Chetty and his team found that nearly all factors in a child’s life, including their family structure, elementary school teachers and neighborhood, have an impact on their future earnings. 

“Economic mobility is heavily driven by the environment in which children grow up from birth roughly to age 20 or 22, and what matters is the context in which you grow up,” Chetty said. 

Higher education plays a great role in raising low-income children into a higher economic status, but Chetty argues that low-income children have a much lower chance of getting into university than high-income children. 

“If you’re born to parents at the top of the income distribution, there’s virtually a 100% chance you’re going to go to college in the U.S.,” Chetty said. “If you’re born to parents in the bottom distribution, there’s only a 30% chance you’re going to college.” 

Additionally, elite universities such as Columbia and Harvard, which have great financial outcomes for low-income students, tend to cater to high-income students instead. 

“You’re about 80 times more likely to attend Harvard if you happen to be born to parents in the top one percent of income distribution,” Chetty said.

On the other hand, at Stony Brook, 20% of students come from low-income families, and 50% of those students will reach at least the middle class. 

Along with colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY) system and other institutions considered “mid-tier,” this outlier is what pushed Chetty to consider Stony Brook a leader in giving low-income students access to economic mobility. 

Ajith Nagaraj, assistant vice president for advancement strategy and administration, later emphasized the impact that Stony Brook has made in providing opportunities to low-income students. 

“All students and faculty at Stony Brook should be proud that Stony Brook is one of the top institutions in the country at this issue of social mobility,” Nagaraj said. 

Institutions that cater to low-income students, however, such as community colleges, have much worse economic outcomes. Those students tend to stay in the bottom 20%. 

Two main strategies were outlined by Chetty: making elite universities more accessible and improving outcomes at colleges already accessible to low-income students. 

“We need to expand low-income access at highly selective colleges where we currently have great outcomes,” Chetty said. 

The University of Michigan has begun to increase accessibility by collecting high SAT scores from low-income students and informing them of their eligibility for a full ride. 

Chetty said that this has increased enrollment rates at the University of Michigan from 12% up to 27%.

The CUNY system’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs has also improved outcomes for low-income students by aiding them through CUNY schools. 

“There’s a study that shows that this program, relatively inexpensive, does double graduation rates at CUNY,” Chetty said. 

Chetty concluded his presentation by discussing the collective negative impact that limited access to social mobility has on all of America. 

“I want to emphasize that increasing economic opportunity is not just a matter of justice, but also a matter of increasing welfare for everyone in society,” Chetty said. 

The event then moved into the discussion portion, where McInnis asked Chetty a series of submitted questions. 

One of these questions pertained to Chetty’s background as an Indian immigrant, and how both his own experiences and those of his parents influenced his future research. 

“My parents grew up in villages in South India … and because a lot of families didn’t have enough money to educate all of their kids, they would choose one to get higher education,” Chetty said. 

He described how witnessing first-hand the discrepancies in opportunity between himself and his cousins due to this access to higher education, coupled with his interest in economics, led him to investigating economic mobility. 

Rinchen Sahni, a sophomore double majoring in economics and globalization studies, gave her perspective on how Chetty’s lecture impacted her view on economic mobility in the United States. 

“In certain parts of the world it’s progressing, but in the United States we can still work on it a bit more,” Sahni said. 

McInnis then allowed Chetty to expand on the impact of his research on real policies and pieces of legislation. 

He focused on a pilot study he and his team ran in Seattle a few years ago which provided 1,000 families seeking housing vouchers additional assistance to move into high-opportunity areas. 

“It fundamentally changed where families chose to live,” Chetty said. “They chose to stay there.”

A metro-housing bill was then passed by both Democrats and Republicans in 10 other cities with $10 million provided in funding. An upcoming bill would provide another $5 billion. 

Chetty stressed the importance of big-data research in motivating both legislators and universities to do more to lift low-income students into the middle class and beyond. 

“I’m hopeful we’re going to have more to say on what colleges can do to increase diversity and have greater impacts on economic mobility,” Chetty said at the end of the session. 

Chetty plans to publicly release further research on economic mobility this summer and continue to demonstrate the need for policies that aid low-income families and students through his research at Harvard University.

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