Sheryll Pang was only 16 when her stepfather kicked her out of her home in New Jersey, leaving her to fend for herself for the rest of her teenage years. She managed to finish high school, sleeping at friends’ houses, and working a series of odd jobs to get by.
Attending college was a dream that seemed far out of reach at the time, says Pang, who moved to New Jersey from Singapore when she was six years old. “I didn’t know what I was capable of. My stepdad told me I was a failure and that I was never going to amount to anything,” she recalls.. “I was that kind of stuck.”
She eventually moved to Manhattan, working at a gift shop on St. Mark’s Place in New York City, where she was soon promoted to manager. Her life took a more complicated turn when she became pregnant with her son, born in 2009. She quickly became determined to provide a better life for him, enrolling in classes at Queensborough Community College when he was just three months old.
‘I HAD NO IDEA WHAT INVESTMENT BANKERS DID’
Her strong academics and work ethic caught the attention of her teachers, who encouraged her to apply to the America Needs You Fellows Program, a career-development and leadership initiative for first-generation college students. She was accepted as a fellow, and the program soon helped her land a spot at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College in Manhattan, where she enrolled in 2011. Her mentors in the fellows program, several of whom worked in the financial services industry, got her excited about a career in finance.
“Back then, I had no idea what investment bankers did. I always thought jobs like that only existed in movies,” she says. “I didn’t know people could make over $100,000 a year out of college or even more than that.”
Four years later, Pang, who was accepted to Zicklin’s Undergraduate Honors Program and the school’s Financial Leadership Program, ended up entering the finance world herself. She interviewed at more than a half dozen investment banks before accepting a job at BlackRock, the prestige asset management firm, where she’s worked since 2014.
WHERE SIGNIFICANT SOCIAL MOBILITY IS ALMOST A GIVEN
She’s one of hundreds of success stories to have emerged from Baruch, a public commuter school in the heart of Manhattan that’s part of the CUNY (City University of New York) system. Baruch, which is home to the Zicklin School of Business, recently received attention in a comprehensive nationwide study released by the Equality of Opportunity Project. The study was conducted by a team of economists from Stanford University who examined anonymous tax records for over 30 million college students between 1999 and 2013, linking tax returns to attendance records from almost every college in the country. Baruch scored well in two key indices of social mobility, according to the study’s report.
The business school’s undergraduate program may have placed 77th on the latest U.S. News ranking, but far more importantly, it nabbed the ninth spot in the study’s list of the top ten schools for upward mobility. For example, at Baruch, 79% of students who enrolled in the late 1990s and came from some of the poorest families – those in the bottom fifth of income distribution – moved to the top three-fifths of the income distribution scale upon attaining their college degree. Baruch also ranked no. 5 in the study’s top ten list that looked at colleges with the highest upward social mobility rate from the bottom 40% to the top 40%.
Those stats make Baruch’s undergraduate business business the MoneyBall program in the U.S., the place where the cost of an education delivers above-average returns for students and parents, helping them achieve the kind of social mobility that the American Dream has always promised but seems more elusive now than ever before.
‘IT’S BEEN OUR MISSION FOR DECADES’
Those numbers don’t surprise Fenwick Huss, dean of Baruch’s Zicklin School, who explains that the school attracts a high number of extraordinarily driven students, many of whom are either the children of immigrants or first-generation college students, driven to change their circumstances for the better.. “It’s been our mission for decades, but it was nice to see the empirical evidence to confirm that,” he says. “This school has been a catalyst not only for financial mobility but for social mobility, really changing the lives of people.”
Many of the students who attend Baruch hold down two or three jobs while they are in school full-time so they can pay tuition and rent. Huss says he often takes Uber cars to get around the city, and in two different circumstances, the drivers of the cars who pick him up have been Zicklin students.
“One of the students who picked me up said ‘I’ve been to class this morning, then went to my part-time job mid-day, came back to campus for my afternoon study group and am now driving an Uber car at night,’” Huss says. “That’s just one example of the kind of motivation that they have, which is why they are doing so well here.”
‘BARUCH IS THE EPITOME OF THE AMERICAN DREAM’
Pang, who graduated Baruch with her dream job at BlackRock, and no debt because of Baruch’s affordable tuition and a mix of grants, financial aids and scholarships, counts herself among that group of highly motivated Baruch students. Like others at Baruch, she worked while in school, running her own web design business and working as a tutor at Baruch to help accounting and corporate finance students.
“Baruch is the epitome of the American dream. Most everyone who is there didn’t come from a great background and faced their own set of adverse circumstances,” she says. “But it’s a place where if you work hard, Baruch can help you reap the rewards.”
About 60% of Baruch’s students come from households with family incomes of under $40,000 a year, and 40% of the students are first-generation. Given that Baruch is part of the CUNY system, most students graduate from school with some of the lowest debt levels in the country. “They leave with very low debt and when they go out into the world, they have a very high salary, often higher than their family income has been,” Huss adds.