News & Commentary

Understanding the Path to Economic Mobility for California’s Learners

California boasts the fifth largest economy in the world and is a national model for progress and equity in many ways. Despite this prosperity, California struggles with some of the highest levels of income inequality in the country.

How can higher education serve as a pathway for the lowest income Californians and their families to achieve economic mobility? At College Futures Foundation, we set out to answer this question through the launch of our new strategic framework and a recent landscape analysis examining the intersection of economic mobility and higher education.

Bringing an explicit economic mobility focus is vital to addressing California’s challenges. With nearly one third of the state’s residents living in or near poverty, the promise of economic mobility remains largely unmet—particularly for Californians from diverse backgrounds. A crucial step toward closing income and racial equity gaps is to ensure that all Californians have access to opportunities for postsecondary attainment, and that those credentials and degrees earned lead to high wages and sustainable careers.

We know from previous analyses, like Third Way’s Economic Mobility Index, that California is home to many of the nation’s top colleges and universities for advancing economic mobility. Relative to many other parts of the country, California’s public higher education institutions are economically inclusive of low-income learners. For learners facing outsized financial barriers, graduating from these institutions often leads to large income gains.

However, for millions of Californians, the opportunity to earn a postsecondary education, and subsequently a better job, remains out of reach. The barriers are especially high for low-income older adults and working learners.

At College Futures, we believe that aligning postsecondary education for economic mobility is an important piece of the puzzle if we want a robust, inclusive economy in California. We have been thinking extensively about how we define economic mobility and how to best create and support more paths to high-wage, high-demand jobs for learners who are underserved.

At College Futures Foundation, we define upward economic mobility as a measure of significant increase in income and earnings over time.[1]

Over the last several months, we engaged researchers, policymakers, and institutional leaders throughout the country to better understand how higher education can increase economic mobility in California. Through this research we learned:

  • The college completion rate of low-income learners is one of the best predictors of the economic mobility gains an institution offers.[2] With this understanding, College Futures will continue to lead its completion-focused efforts, with a specific focus on older adults and working learners facing outsized financial barriers.
  • Indices and rankings of postsecondary institutions’ return on investment (ROI) and mobility typically measure economic inclusion and wage premiums, but do not serve as a student-facing guide for learners who are underserved on their best choice if they are optimizing for mobility gains. College Futures intends to drive actionable conversations about higher education ROI in California and support efforts to enhance learner decision-making.
  • Employment and wage data remain inaccessible to many postsecondary leaders. They also have few tools to understand the major obstacles their learners face to completion, such as competing demands from work, affordability challenges, or academic issues. Helping institutional leaders focus on economic mobility through greater access to data and transparency is a top priority for College Futures.
  • Economic needs and mobility performance are highly regional. In California’s less economically developed areas away from the coast, higher education leaders must be more creative to generate workforce-connected opportunities for their learners. College Futures aims to support these leaders in their ongoing innovation efforts, ensuring that their institutions remain regional hubs for economic mobility.
  • Economic mobility is a core value and driving factor for many of the higher education leaders in California. College Futures will look to support institution and system leaders, as well as non-profit and technology partners who share this mission in scaling their impact.

Our conversations reinforced that the time to confront persistent social and economic inequities is now. How we collectively show up to meet this moment—amid fluctuating economies, ever-changing labor needs, and evolving technology—will determine whether we widen disparities or realize an equitable future for Californians now, and generations to come.

College Futures will apply these key learnings as we look to advance a deeper understanding and a new narrative regarding the future of postsecondary education as a driver of economic mobility. We intend to release research and support conversations with leaders and stakeholders in the coming months, and we welcome thoughts and partnership.



[1] This definition is informed by Social capital I: measurement and associations with economic mobility.   

[2] Bleemer, Z., Kumar, M., Mehta, A., Muellerleile, C., & Newfield, C. (2023). Metrics that matter: Counting what’s really important to college students. Johns Hopkins University Press.