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QUEST: The Many Faces of Social Mobility

November 26, 2021

This story is included in the most recent issue of Quest Magazine, the College's twice-yearly Alumni publication. To view the entire issue online, or to view longer-form "Quest Extra" pieces, click here.

The term “social mobility” is not a familiar one. “Social” is more conversant when paired with other words, such as “social media,” or “social distancing” – a phrase we are far too familiar with in our second year of the pandemic. But social mobility? Even those at The College of Idaho weren’t as familiar with this term before U.S. News & World Report started recognizing schools for high achievement in the category. Once the term “social mobility” is understood, it becomes clear why the College has been recognized for it, even earning its first No. 1 ranking in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

Social Mobility in relation to higher education is generally defined as upward movement of students and graduates from one socioeconomic status to another. When rankings for Top Performers on Social Mobility were first published in 2019, U.S. News’ chief data strategist Robert Morse stated “A university is not successful if it does not graduate its students, which is why the ‘Best Colleges’ rankings place the greatest value on outcomes, including graduation and retention rates. By including social mobility indicators, U.S. News is further recognizing colleges that serve all of their students, regardless of economic status.”

Also in 2019, USA Today wrote “The new ranking ‘evaluates which schools best serve underrepresented students’ and analyzes enrollment and graduation rates of low-income students with Pell Grants as a proxy. In America, the U.S. News & World Report rankings are regarded as the gold standard.” In its reporting, the Baltimore Sun described why Social Mobility rankings matter: “Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to graduate college than other students.” According to U.S. News, most students who receive Pell Grants come from households with family incomes under $50,000 annually.

For it’s national overall rankings, U.S. News had been using social mobility data as one of its many metrics for years. It just recently decided to showcase schools in a separate category for excelling in it. The first year in which it feted schools based on their social mobility marks, 2020, the College ranked No. 4. At the time, College of Idaho Provost David Douglass said “Social mobility in the U.S. has declined sharply during the past decade, and young Americans now have far fewer opportunities to find financial security. In light of this downward trend, it is heartening to know that The College of Idaho continues to succeed in transforming the lives of students in need.”

By the 2021 rankings, The College of Idaho ranked No. 1 in Social Mobility for all national liberal arts colleges. Only 112 schools made the rankings list.

As one looks back through the 130 years of the College’s history, one finds dedicated faculty, mentors, coaches, campus leaders, staff and fellow students dedicated to ensuring that all attendees, no matter their economic background or difficulties, had the best chance in the nation of graduating and changing their lives for the better.

To demonstrate, we offer up a few examples of students who had the socioeconomic odds stacked against them, but given the chance in Caldwell, transformed their lives

Abbi Engel ‘03

To understand the educational challenges Abbi faced, the benchmark is her second-grade year: she attended three different elementary schools that year. She’ll tell you that her upbringing was so rural, she’s one of the few people she knows who attended two different one-room schoolhouses. “I’m probably the only millennial that has ever experienced the party-line phone,” she jokes. Her father was a farm manager who didn’t own his own farmland. So he worked various farms in Nevada and Oregon, mainly growing seed and hay for large cattle ranches. Which meant Abbi, her mom, and two sisters (one older, one younger) moved often while growing up. The entire Engel family possesses a strong work ethic, but ranch management was not a particularly lucrative job and there was no family financial assistance when Abbi was deciding what to do after high school. She considered joining the military after graduating from Skyview High school, the latest stop in her educational geography tour.

Her older sister attended the College for a time, but health issues kept her from continuing. Abbi decided she needed a small-school environment. The combination of grants, loans, scholarships, and the ability to commute from Nampa bridged the affordability gap for her. By the time she was on campus, she took in the full liberal arts experience. Majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry, Abbi was also involved in choir, took statistics for the basketball teams, spent time in pottery classes, worked in the mail center and graduated summa cum laude. When asked about influential faculty, she rattles off names like Scott Truksa, Sheri Robison, Bill Sype, Jim Angresano, Eric Yensen, Ann Koga.

Perhaps the most significant encounter by a faculty member came from her advisor, Don Mansfield, who advocated for her to get a paid position at Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton, Montana. “My boss didn’t tell me at the time, but I later found out that Mansfield actually wouldn’t let him get off the phone until he agreed to hire me.”

Eventually, her career led to graduate school at Georgetown University (she was also accepted at Johns Hopkins) where she earned her Ph.D. Currently, Dr. Engel is a research scientist and lab manager for the University of Washington Vision Center in Seattle, specializing in possible treatments for macular degeneration and retinal disease. The hurdles and challenges she has overcome along the way could fill the remaining pages of this magazine, but through her work ethic and the support she received at the College, she continues to succeed. “The College allowed for a lot of versatility. I was able to jump into a lot of roles that I wouldn’t have expected to be able to do, and have a fighting chance at it.”

Lori (Dembi) Werth ‘98

The graduation rate of international students does not factor in the U.S. News Social Mobility metric, as the main determiner is graduation rates of Pell-eligible students, and international students do not qualify for Pell grants. Based on the economic condition of many of the international students who have succeeded at the College, if their success were factored in, the College might be the top-ranked school for many years. The College’s current international student population is 18-percent spanning more than 90 countries.

When Lori Werth arrived in the U.S., she, her brother, her parents and grandparents had fled Romania with nothing but what they could pack into a few suitcases. Lori was a grade-schooler at the time. The care she received from educational professionals in Nampa, Idaho, helped her decide she would be the first in her family to attend college.

The consideration and attention she received from instructors continued to impact her once she arrived at the College. A biology major, she credits professors such as Tim Otter, John Thuerer, Howard Berger, Lisa Derry, Eric Yensen and others with being more like family members. “I didn’t have a computer coming to college,” she said. “I distinctly remember going and getting help from library staff to learn how to use basic technology. The support of staff, faculty advisors and folks in residence life were just amazing. They were people who care deeply for students, they saw the talent in students, and ended up mentoring and taking the time to do that.”

Werth also worked in residence life as a student and was hired in admissions right after she graduated. Through that process, she decided she didn’t want to go into the medical field as she originally planned, but adjusted course and ended up with a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration. She has worked in enrollment management, student services, and has also been an associate professor. Since 2016, she is the Provost of the University of Pikeville in Kentucky.

She says one of the most significant reasons she switched to higher education was the desire to give back, because she saw how education and educators helped lift her up at every stage. “It’s a journey where there’s so much growth and development that happens, not just delivering an education. I think that’s part of what is being recognized now in the ranking, but I think the institution has done that historically as part of its mission.”

Natasha Dacic ‘18

Natasha Dacic can sum up her years growing up in a single sentence that carries a tremendous amount of weight: Born in Germany, she was raised by a single mom who escaped the Yugoslav civil war to the U.S. and became the first in her family to graduate college. She can add another phrase to it after taking a gap year following her 2018 graduation: currently in the Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan for climate and space sciences and engineering.

Through several scholarships and grants, The College of Idaho became one of her most affordable options coming out of Boise High school. “Attending a private, liberal arts school for college, that sounds like it shouldn’t be happening,” she remembers. “We had no money to pay for college.”

Out of state was her preference, but the opportunity to play basketball is what eventually brought her to the College. At least for the first year. She felt she could reevaluate her options after getting a year under her belt. Still in Caldwell as a math/physics major during her sophomore year, she says she was in a mid-college academic life crisis, feeling like she needed to transfer schools so she could attain an undergraduate degree in engineering instead (the College offers 3-2 cooperative programs with other schools, but no standalone engineering degree). While she was struggling with her decision, former geoscience professor Jaime Goode took her to a conference in Oregon about undergraduate women in physics. Goode had also introduced her to environmental science, which sparked new interest. Bottom line, when she returned from the conference, she had confidence she could get where she wanted to go in her career with her undergrad degree in math/physics. “When I came back, I did like a full 180 from almost transferring to a different school, to adding a second major,” she said. “I added on the environmental studies major. I absolutely loved that program.”

And she never looked back. She took advantage of research opportunities, which just fed into her own personal academic appetite. “I definitely credit my research career to Jaime Goode, because without that experience, I don’t know if I would be where I am today.” It led to a summer internship in California in partnership with NASA. She also mentions Katie Devine, Jim Dull and Lynda Danielson as impactful faculty, and often utilized the open-door policy they all offered.

After her Ph.D., she would like to pursue a career in science policy. Does she feel her mobility was limited by attending a small school in Idaho? “I don’t think I’ve been limited. I don’t think I’ve once felt limited.”

Robyn Griffitts-Harper

When asked what social mobility means to her, current junior Robyn Griffitts-Harper said “It is being able to surpass the enormous barriers that our society has constructed. When you come from my background, it’s really easy to see those barriers. Work as hard as you can and actually achieve things and not just be stuck in cyclical poverty or in those kinds of places. And being able to change those barriers for people. Social mobility to me means being able to access power and use it for good and to help others.”

The Spanish and history double-major came to the College from Mountain View high school and was awarded one of the first Horatio Alger scholarships. The scholarship not only focuses on students with financial need, but those who have faced and overcome great obstacles in their lives. She grew up in a divorced and economically struggling household, worrying if they would be able to make the mortgage payment and still afford groceries. She knew she would need financial help to get to college, which included a Pell Grant.

She was sold on the College faculty before she ever started at the College due to some helpful interactions with faculty. As part of a senior project, she needed to produce a documentary. She reached out to faculty at the College to be interview subjects and ended up including political economy professor Rob Dayley and speech and debate professor Kyle Cheesewright (now her debate coach) in the finished product. With history professor Mee-Ae Kim and world language professor Jennie Daniels as her advisors, Robyn says she is in good hands.

Her goal is to someday attend Columbia Law School in New York City to empower herself to help others. “I feel like that’s more available to me than any other time in my life,” she said.

Thus, the cycle of social mobility continues at the College for all students. Perhaps if founder William Judson Boone had known how successful his school would be in this life-improving area 130 years after its establishment, he may have amended his most famous quote to say, “Let them come. Let them all come, and we will see ensure what they can do.”

The College of Idaho has a 130-year-old legacy of excellence. The College is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition, and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.