Social Mobility Elevators

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

December 1, 2020

By James Murphy

Higher education remains an important driver of social mobility in America. Everyone benefits when low-income and working-class students enroll in and complete postsecondary training. Those with postsecondary degrees earn more, are more likely to be employed, and pay more in taxes. Racial inequities in employment and income increasingly even out where there are higher levels of education attainment. Too often, however, the students who stand to benefit the most from a college degree are shut out of many of our most prestigious universities and end up at institutions where a majority of students never graduate. Worse, they are saddled with debt they cannot afford to repay.  

While it is important to challenge both the wealthy colleges that are not doing enough to enroll low-income students, especially relative to their size, and the colleges that are not doing enough to help low-income students graduate and succeed, it is also important to identify colleges and universities that are providing both access and successful outcomes to large numbers of students, transforming not just their lives but their communities and the nation as well.

Education Reform Now, a non-profit advocacy organization, created our “social mobility impact ranking” to hold up the colleges and universities that change the most lives, but doing so also revealed hundreds of colleges, many of them very wealthy, that could do more to lift up low-income students. A social mobility elevator, after all, only helps people who get in it.


In 2018-19, almost 7 million college students received Pell Grants, which typically go to individuals from households earning less than $65,000 per year. That’s almost half the households in America, so it’s no surprise that about 31% of all postsecondary students currently receive this federal assistance. At almost 200 colleges in our ranking, however, not even 20% of undergraduates are Pell Grant recipients. That’s significant given that ACT and College Board data reveal that tens of thousands of students who score in the 90th percentile and above on admissions exams come from Pell Grant eligible families.

Hundreds of colleges do enroll large shares of students with Pell Grants, and  the vast majority of four-year colleges admit many more applicants than they reject. Enrollment alone, however, does little to increase social mobility. Students need degrees. Liberty University, for instance, enrolls around 20,000 undergraduates who receive a Pell Grant, but only 37% of them go on to earn a degree. 

In contrast, the University of Central Florida (#2 in our social mobility impact ranking) enrolls close to 22,000 Pell Grant students a year and 69% of them graduate. UCF’s graduation rate is lower than many of the most selective private and public universities, but it has a larger impact than, say, the University of Virginia (#156) where students with Pell Grants have a 92% graduation rate but only make up 13% of undergraduates, and a much larger impact than our nation’s most elite universities. UCF enrolls 55% more Pell Grant students by itself than the twelve Ivy Plus universities combined.

To be social mobility elevators, universities and colleges need to provide access to low-income students and deliver the academic and student services that drive higher graduation rates and lead to good jobs after college. Pell Grant student shares as a percentage of overall enrollment in and of itself is an important accountability measure in higher education, because representation matters on campus and socioeconomic diversity benefits students enrolled at individual institutions, but our ranking goes beyond representation to highlight the impact on social mobility of colleges enrolling and graduating low-income students. 

In order to gauge both the extent to which a college has made a meaningful commitment to social mobility and the impact of that commitment, Education Reform Now created a straightforward formula accounting for access, completion, and outcomes. The result is our social mobility impact index, which ranks public, private, and for-profit institutions that predominantly grant bachelor’s degrees. 

We started with over 1,900 institutions listed by the US Department of Education as four-year schools that receive federal financial aid dollars. Our first and perhaps most alarming finding was that only 614 colleges and universities met our thresholds for graduation and loan repayment rates. To some degree, all of the institutions that made the cut qualify as social mobility elevators, since they all deliver largely positive outcomes for the low-income students they enroll. At too many colleges and universities, particularly the wealthy ones that have the best outcomes, their social mobility impact is limited because they enroll too few of the students who would in fact benefit the most by attending them. There are, however, institutions, like UCLA (#13) and USC (#74), that prove a university can be highly selective and propel large numbers of low-income students into the middle class.

Our Social Mobility Elevators issue brief has a full description of our methodology.

Of the 614 four-year colleges that met our criteria for access, completion, and outcomes, the majority were non-profit private institutions. Only three for-profit colleges had a Pell graduation rate over 50%, a cohort default rate below 6.9%, and a 5-year repayment rate of 75% or greater. If we look at the top 100 schools in our social mobility impact ranking, however, the list is dominated by public colleges and universities.

Nine of the top ten institutions in our social mobility impact ranking are public universities. Eight of the top ten are in California.

Some private universities do have a large impact on social mobility.

Some private universities do have a large impact on social mobility. A majority of these highly ranked private institutions have a religious mission. DePaul University (#52) is the top rated Catholic university in our ranking. Georgetown University (#283) and the University of Notre Dame (#355) might be the most prestigious Catholic universities in the country, but their social mobility impact numbers fall behind hundreds of secular colleges that do not share the Church’s mission to serve the poor. 


The top of our ranking is dominated by large public institutions. The top ten universities enroll, on average, 14,006 students with Pell Grants. One of the big problems with most highly selective schools, which do provide significant benefits for the working class and low-income students they enroll, is that they admit relatively low shares of Pell-eligible students to typically small freshmen classes. It’s disheartening that just 33 of the 59 colleges in our ranking with acceptance rates below 25% fell into the bottom half of the list

Highly selective colleges also tend to enroll very few students through transfer, which is an important pathway to four-year colleges for low-income students. Ivy League universities averaged just 188 transfer enrollments per year between 2016 and 2018. If we take Columbia and Cornell out of that count, the remaining 6 institutions averaged only 43 transfer enrollments per year. The University of Central Florida, in contrast, averaged 7,880 transfers per year. USC is a highly selective private institution, but it averaged 1,402 transfers per year during this period, almost as many as the entire Ivy League. 

Low Pell Grant student shares and small overall enrollments combine to blunt the impact most highly selective universities have on social mobility. Too many highly selective institutions that have very high graduation rates and billion dollar plus endowments, like Tufts University (#401) and Washington and Lee University (#602), effectively hoard opportunity. For the select few low-income and even middle-income students who get into these prestigious institutions, the payoff can be very large indeed. The problem is too few are admitted and enrolled. These highly selective universities play an outsized role in politics, finance, science and medicine, so it is essential that they increase socioeconomic and racial diversity. They should expand access by not only increasing their Pell shares but also by increasing their class sizes so more students can reap the benefits of attending a school like the University of Chicago (#421), Colgate University (#550) or CalTech (#601). 

High prestige schools, like the ultra-selective schools with acceptance rates in the single digits, receive a disproportionate amount of media attention and dominate conversations about higher education, while the biggest social mobility elevators want for attention and, too often, funding. 

In some states, the most selective public institutions receive a disproportionately large percentage of the state funding even though less prestigious peers are doing a better job of promoting socioeconomic mobility. Consider Florida. While the University of Florida (#21) and Florida State University (#16) both do well in our ranking, they do not do as well as UCF (#3). And yet, the State of Florida sends much more revenue to the University of Florida and Florida State in state appropriations. The University of Florida gets more than twice as much from the state per full-time equivalent student than the University of Central Florida does, despite the flagship also receiving more than three times as much total revenue per full-time equivalent student. 

Given the financial challenges facing states and higher education in the coming years, social mobility elevators that successfully serve the most students with the fewest resources deserve priority in any state funding formula relative to other four-year colleges. The time has come to lift up the institutions that do more to lift up students.

You can search our social mobility impact rankings below. Please share your shout-outs (or shamings) on Twitter and don’t forget to tag us (@EdReformNowUSA) alongside your alma mater, current institution, or local college.