Size Matters in More Ways Than One

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

February 9, 2021

By James Murphy

For all their problems, college rankings have the power to shine a light on institutions that are doing good for students and the nation as a whole and to expose those that help drive income inequality and social division. In 2005, Washington Monthly magazine began ranking colleges “based on what they do for the country,” which includes their contribution to social mobility. In 2018, the most influential college rankings system, US News and World Report’s Best Colleges, followed suit, adding a social mobility score to its scheme, albeit only counting it for 5% of the overall score.

As we have argued elsewhere, neither ranking system measures social mobility well.

The Washington Monthly ranking depends too much on the entire student body’s outcomes and too little on how many low-income students attend. As a result, Washington and Lee University is rated the number two liberal arts college in the nation for social mobility even though it is one of the worst schools in America when it comes to enrolling students with Pell Grants: not even 10% of students are recipients, while the national average is over 30%. Washington Monthly should, quite simply, redesign its rankings so that colleges which deliver strong outcomes to low-income students but enroll very, very few of them are punished for hoarding opportunity rather than rewarded for it.

The Best Collegesmethodology for measuring a college’s social mobility impact “incorporate[s] six-year graduation rates of Pell Grant students, adjusted to give much more credit to schools with larger Pell student proportions.” It’s a much better approach than Washington Monthly, but it plays far too small a role in the rankings. US News should flip the value of its reputational survey (20% of the rating) over to social mobility and make the popularity contest worth just 5%. Best Colleges should also be more transparent about how it calculates this score. Much of the point of adding a mobility measure to the rankings was to motivate colleges and universities to do more for Pell-eligible students. Best News needs to prepare a clearer roadmap for doing so.

Education Reform Now created a social mobility impact ranking this past December. It was a two step process.

1: We identified four-year colleges and universities where:

a. The 6-year graduation rate of students with Pell Grants was over 50%;

b. Fewer than 6.9% of students defaulted on their loans within 3 years of entering repayment (half the national average); and

c. At least 75% of students began paying down their student loans within 5 years of entering repayment.

2: We ranked the 614 schools out of more than 2,000 four-year colleges nationally that made the first cut by multiplying the number of students with Pell Grants by the share and graduation of all students with Pell Grants.

It is important to note that making the first cut means that a university was having a positive effect on social mobility. The aim of the follow up ranking was to identify which of those colleges were having the largest impact and which were lagging behind.

The size of a university had a significant effect on its ranking. This was by design. It is the large public universities that have the biggest impact in lifting up low-income and first-generation students to the middle class. Consider that there are 37 universities that enroll as many or more students with Pell Grants than the entire Ivy League. Many of them topped our rankings.

If we remove the Pell headcount from our rankings and look just at Pell share and graduation rate, many of the top twenty-five institutions are still very large, but some very small schools rise to the top. Neumont College (452 students) and Hellenic College (81 students) have high graduation and enrollment rates for students with Pell Grants, which is good for their students, but they have a tiny fraction of the effect on society than the average University of California system university does. A ranking of impact on social mobility must take size into account.

But we do not want to slight smaller institutions that have a positive impact on social mobility. Even more, we do not want to slight the institutions that within their size categories do a better job than their peers at increasing social mobility. To ensure that institutions were recognized for their contributions (or failures), Education Reform Now broke schools into 5 categories, based on the size of their enrollment.

The majority of colleges in the United States are not very large, but the majority of students go to very large colleges. That breakdown is reflected among the social mobility elevators as well.

Before we get to the rankings within each category, Education Reform Now wanted to call out two groups of colleges in particular: the overperformers, who rated much higher in the overall mobility rankings than in overall size rankings, and the underperformers, who rated much lower in the overall mobility rankings than in the overall size rankings.

The overperformers were largely small and medium colleges, punching way above their weight class, by admitting large shares of students with Pell Grants and graduating them at high rates too.

The underperformers were mainly large and medium private colleges hoarding the advantages they provide. Many of them, such as Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, are prestigious institutions that can enroll students from across the country but badly lag on enrolling low-income students, even when compared to peer institutions with similar admissions standards.

The rankings for small colleges (1-2,000 undergrads) show that size is not the single most important element when it comes to social mobility impact. 16 of the top 20 colleges for social mobility impact fell outside of the top 20 for size, and 3 of the top 10 for mobility impact fell outside the top 100 for size. At the other end of the spectrum, the largest institution in the group, Rhodes College, came in 188th in the mobility impact rankings and the 25th-ranked Washington and Lee came in 199th place on mobility impact.

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Out of the 194 medium-sized colleges (2,000-5,000 undergrads), the top school for social mobility impact, Mount Saint Mary’s University, ranked only 120th in size. Dominican University ranked 8th for mobility impact, but 164th in size. The largest school in the group, Christopher Newport University, came in 139th for mobility impact. The largest mobility gap in the group belongs to High Point University, #11 in size but #190 on mobility.

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In the large colleges group (5,000-10,000 undergrads), almost every single institution in the top 10 for mobility is outperforming its size ranking. The largest school in the group, Harvard, is ranked 72 out of 96 on mobility impact, and its neighbor across the Charles River, Boston College, comes in 61st on mobility impact despite being the second largest institution in the group.[1]

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In the very large colleges group (10,000-20,000 undergrads), the majority of the top ten institutions for social mobility impact are outperforming their size ranking. CUNY-Baruch comes in second on mobility impact, but 26th out of 49 on size. SUNY-Albany is #8 on mobility impact and #38 on size. The largest school in the group, James Madison, ranks only #36 on mobility impact, and the University of Delaware, #2 on size, is #43 on mobility impact. Kudos to one of Delaware’s U.S. Senators, Chris Coons, for pushing his home state flagship and other colleges to do better.

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Finally, at the largest universities in the nation (20,000+ undergrads) we see the same pattern: the institutions that have the largest impact on social mobility are not the largest in the group. California State Universities and schools in the University of California take seven of the top ten spots on mobility impact, but none are among the top ten in size. Conversely, several Big 10 schools rank high on size but low on mobility impact, including Indiana (#10 on size, #48 on mobility), Purdue (#18 on size, #58 on mobility) and Wisconsin-Madison (#21 size, on #61 mobility).

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What this breakdown of our rankings into smaller groups shows is that it’s not just the size of an institution that matters when it comes to a college’s social mobility impact. It’s also the size of its commitment to access, equity, and completion.