A New Kind of Social Mobility Ranking

Higher Education

May 1, 2023

The 2023 Social Mobility Elevator rankings are the first college ranking system to center race and ethnicity, to include state context, and to levy a penalty for using legacy preferences.

It might seem like an odd time to refresh the Social Mobility Elevator (SME) rankings that Education Reform Now (ERN) first released in 2020. The U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings are at a low point after many of the top-ranked law schools and medical schools announced they would no longer respond to the magazine’s surveys. While only two four-year colleges have made the same public pledge, the response rate for the reputation survey has plummeted to just 34%. And no wonder, since the reputation survey is an absurd exercise in which college presidents and chief admissions officers are asked to identify the best study abroad programs and the best First-Year Experience at colleges where they do not work. The Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, has called college rankings a “joke” and told an audience in March, “It’s time to stop worshiping at the false altar of U.S. News & World Report. It’s time to focus on what truly matters—delivering value and upward mobility.” 

College matters for many reasons.

It is important to recognize that institutions of higher education matter for many reasons and can have a transformative effect on individuals, families, and communities in a variety of ways. Colleges and universities are centers of academic research, incubators of innovation, protectors and cultivators of culture, sites for intellectual and spiritual growth and individual expression, great places to meet friends and life partners, large employers for communities, and much more.

College rankings ignore many of the less-easily-quantified contributions of higher education, which is one reason some people reject the whole concept of rankings. This is an understandable position, particularly considering the fact that the most prominent college rankings program focuses so heavily on institutions’ wealth and prestige (and all the proxies for them).

Driving social mobility is one of the most important reasons for higher education.

Given the cost of college and the deep income inequality in America, however, metrics such as graduation rates, earnings, debt repayment, and other quantifiable measures matter tremendously in determining the value of college. Additionally, we think the power of rankings to call attention to colleges that are having a positive impact on social mobility makes them a useful, if crude, tool. 

We first created the Social Mobility Elevator rankings and are refreshing them now to focus on some of the things we think matter in evaluating four-year colleges, namely, their power to serve as engines for social mobility. 

The first Social Mobility Elevator rankings were designed to measure the impact four-year colleges have on upward social mobility for low-income students, who we identified as students who received Pell Grants for the U.S. Department of Education. Nearly all Pell Grant recipients come from a family that makes less than $60,000 per year, while two-thirds come from households with incomes below $30,000. About a third of all undergraduates in the U.S. received a Pell Grant in 2020.

For each college, we looked at the number of Pell-eligible students enrolled, what percentage of all undergraduates were Pell eligible, and what percentage of students with Pell Grants graduated with a bachelor’s degree. 

The first version of our rankings made it clear that while higher education can function as an engine for social mobility, it does not always do so. 

There are too many four-year colleges where too many students leave with debt but no bachelor’s degree or where graduates earn so little that they struggle to make progress on student loans years after completion of their degree. There are also too many colleges that admit too few students with Pell Grants to have much impact. 

Many of the colleges in that latter category, with very low percentages of Pell-eligible students, do very well in the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings. They also happen to do quite well in other rankings systems that put more emphasis on a college’s ability to help students move into a higher income quintile. If U.S. News and Washington Monthly both put Stanford University, MIT, and Princeton in their top five, why do we even need the Washington Monthly rankings, which ostensibly count social mobility as a major component? It is true that students from the poorest income quintile who get into Stanford or MIT do indeed typically go on to be much richer than their parents. The problem is that so few of those low-income students actually go to a Stanford or an MIT or to any of the colleges that are so hard to get into that some have come to call them “highly rejective” instead of “highly selective.” As a result, highly rejective colleges have very little impact on social mobility. They are more like poverty escape hatches through which a relatively tiny number of individuals can pass.

We do not need poverty escape hatches. We need social mobility elevators, big ones, designed to lift many people up. 

If you are looking for students with Pell Grants, you will find many more of them at less-rejective public universities than at the colleges that top most rankings. One important exception to college rankings highly rating wealthy colleges with low rates of enrollment for Pell-eligible students is the Economic Mobility Index released by Third Way in 2022, which does an excellent job in shining a light on those colleges where students from low-income households enroll and graduate. That is the intention of the Social Mobility Elevator rankings, but we have also used this refresh as a chance to rethink what we mean by social mobility and what our rankings are meant to achieve.

Rankings are not science.

College rankings are typically based on objective data, but that does not make the rankings themselves objective data. Choosing what data matters and determining how to measure it requires many assumptions about what higher education is meant to do. Rankings are best thought of as arguments about priorities rather than as statements of fact. The aim of creating a ranking, therefore, should not be to hide those priorities away but to make them clearer. Here at ERN, we think a “good college” has a transformative and beneficial impact on students, their family, and their community.

Many outcomes are mostly inputs.

The Social Mobility Elevator rankings, like all college rankings, are careful to recognize that many outcomes are deeply affected by inputs. Graduation rates, for instance, are the product not just of what happens at a college but of who is admitted. Students with high levels of academic preparation and students who come from wealthy households are more likely to complete college. Earnings after college certainly reflect the workforce preparation students receive, but they also reflect demographics. Given the continued existence of racial and gender pay gaps in hiring and promotion, is it right to expect the same outcomes from a minority-serving institution (MSI) as from a wealthy predominantly white institution (PWI)?

The solution for these concerns is not to ignore outcomes but to include a mix of inputs and outputs in the Social Mobility Elevator rankings and to be transparent about how they are used in the calculation of the SME score.

What’s new in the Social Mobility Elevator rankings?

In brief, a lot. (For a full discussion of the methodology, click here.)

Our aim is to call attention to the colleges and universities that have a significant impact on social mobility, which we define in terms of both increasing economic mobility and shrinking the racial and ethnic gaps in bachelor’s degree attainment, which have remained static or even worsened in the past two decades. We want to highlight the colleges that have the largest impact on social mobility in order to drive more support for them. These colleges already do a good job of enrolling and graduating an economically, racially, and ethnically diverse student body, but they could do an even better job if they received more state funding or implemented and expanded evidence-based programs and practices that increase retention, graduation, and career earnings. 

Here are the main changes to the 2023 Social Mobility Elevator rankings.

1. We have centered race and ethnicity as well as income.

We took inspiration in part from a recent report from The Institute for College Access and Success, which reminds us that “economic indicators, like earnings and debt alone, are incomplete measures of college value for communities of color.” Our methodology includes both the percentage of undergraduates who are underrepresented students of color at an institution and a state index, which is based on the proportion of a state’s underrepresented students of color enrolled there relative to the proportion of a state’s total undergrads enrolled there. The aim is not only to recognize that rankings are always racialized due to disparities in access to educational opportunities in K-12 and college, in wealth, and in hiring but also to advocate for the institutions that disproportionately serve underrepresented students of color, since they have historically been underfunded and neglected in other respects. The Social Mobility Elevator rankings are, we believe, the only college rankings that take racial and ethnic diversity into account.

2. The state index takes a college’s local context into account
to measure its economic, racial, and ethnic diversity.

You would not know it from the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings, but higher education is much more local than many people expect. Half of all college students attend an institution less than 100 miles from their home address, and three quarters attend a college less than 240 miles from home. Other than the very wealthy and highly ranked colleges in the U.S. News rankings, most colleges’ ability to enroll students of color or Pell-eligible students is constrained by their local context. Since Pell eligibility is determined by a federal measure, states like Massachusetts and New Hampshire, which have higher median incomes than states like New Mexico or Florida, have lower percentages of Pell-eligible students. Highly populated, diverse states like California, Texas, New York, and Florida have a significant demographic advantage in the Social Mobility Elevator rankings, which we temper to some degree by providing additional weight to the state index. We believe that the incorporation of state context is a unique feature of our rankings.

3. The earnings premium index measures the percentage of students
earning more than the median income of a high school graduate with no
postsecondary credentials six years after starting college.

4. The access and affordability index compares the net price of
a college (how much it costs after grants) with its admit rate.

The access and affordability index is designed to deal with social mobility gatekeepers, such as Washington and Lee University, that are indeed affordable for low-income students but admit very, very few of them.

5. The legacy penalty docks universities that provide an
advantage to relatives of alumni.

ERN is proud of the work we have led in eliminating the use of legacy preferences in college admissions. Providing a birthright advantage in the admissions process to applicants who are likely to already enjoy significant advantages is basically the antithesis of creating social mobility. The legacy penalty subtracts 10% of an institution’s SME score if it offers a legacy preference; the penalty is doubled at institutions that admit less than 33% of applicants.