What If Every College Enrolled the Same Number of Pell-Eligible Students?

Higher Education

May 1, 2023

If the Social Mobility Elevator rankings have a foundational principle, it is that size matters.

As important as it is to expand access for underrepresented students at highly selective colleges, the reality is that the majority of students attend large, accessible universities. The Social Mobility Elevator rankings are designed to call attention to the institutions that serve their students well—particularly their students from low-income households—which is why we include outcome measures like graduation rates, earnings, and student loan repayment.

We have no qualms about so many of our top-ranked colleges being large public universities that are focused on access and success rather than selectivity and prestige. The institutions in the top quartile of the ranking should provide a model for other institutions of higher education, and they should receive greater support from policymakers to help them better serve their students.

At the same time, we wanted to see what would happen if we took size out of the model by giving every institution of higher education a single student with a Pell Grant and eliminating the state index, which is in part based on size. This is merely a thought experiment—a hypothetical ranking but not an alternative ranking. An institution’s size and number of students with Pell Grants certainly affect outcomes for its students.

Still, the results were interesting, because the rankings did not change as much as might be expected. Half of the top 10 institutions stayed in the top 10, bolstered by their high percentage of underrepresented students of color and strong Pell graduation rates. The hypothetical rankings do reveal a new number one institution, Boricua College, a small private college in New York City that primarily serves students of Puerto Rican descent, many of whom are over 25 and are returning to college or attending for the first time. If you haven’t heard of Boricua, you are not alone. We as a nation tend to focus so much attention on a small number of colleges that are, as the SME rankings show, doing much less to drive social mobility than less well-known institutions are.