Letter: Looking closer, NIU's designation as leader undeserved

To the Editor:

At the beginning of the fall semester, NIU Today published that Northern Illinois University was recognized as a leader by the Brookings Institution. This statement was repeated Oct. 17 by NIU Chief of Staff Matt Streb at the NPR state budget forum.

After reading the report and sifting through the data, I believe this title is undeserved.

The authors of the Brookings report write that we make no claims about causality or the social mobility value added of particular universities, so it is doubtful they intended to create a leaderboard, per se. The report merely argues that there are too many American universities that benefit the upper-middle class instead of creating social mobility, and universities that don’t produce significant research in lieu of it are unworthy of investment by state governments.

If a university is enrolling students such that they are a representative sample of the populace, the share of students it has from the top quintile of family incomes should be 20 percent, but in reality it’s 31 percent on average at public universities.

At NIU, it’s 40 percent. This means that a larger portion of the student body at NIU is from higher-income families.

Furthermore, only 5.4 percent of the student body comes from families in the bottom quintile of incomes, worse than 261 other public universities. So, in terms of accessibility, NIU typifies schools that benefit the upper-middle class.

If you merge Brookings categories and compare NIU to institutions that don’t produce significant research but do provide significant social mobility (a measure of accessibility for low-income students multiplied by the rate of economic success of those students), its ranking is no longer 58th out of 70, but 189th out of 342.

NIU’s social mobility of 1.6 percent is just above the cutoff of 1.57 percent, a figure chosen by Brookings because it is the median of all selective public and private universities.

NIU isn’t an outlier but rather among the crowd.

I’m not entirely confident NIU Today even bothered to look at the data carefully, because Brookings published it initially sorted on the share of students from the top quintile.

When the data is sorted by the correct criteria that Brookings used in categorizing schools as ladders and leaders, social mobility, NIU’s position falls.

In any case, NIU could be doing better.

It can start by researching and answering why more of its low-income students don’t have better outcomes.

Sid Kincaid

Former graduate student
in computational mathematics