Admissions

Colleges Ranked for “Social Mobility”

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One significant annual higher education-related rite is the release of "best colleges" rankings from U.S. News and The Princeton Review. The effect they have on high school students and their families is dramatic and controversial, to say the least. Check out the many levels of reactions to them, both pro and con, on College Confidential’s discussion forums.

Among those reactions every year comes the question: What other rankings are out there? Well, there are quite a few. I won’t list them here, but if you’re looking for variety, you can start with some of these. I’ve cruised many rankings lists over the years and am always surprised about the different approaches used to decide which colleges are on top and why they’re thought to be the best.


That brings me to an interesting set of rankings that is more than a little different: the Social Mobility Index from CollegeNET. The authors note that it was “developed five years ago as an alternative to the U.S. News and World Report rankings.” The SMI ranks almost 1,400 US colleges and universities based on how effectively they are admitting first-generation and underrepresented students and supporting their academic success and social mobility.

In A Rather Large Nutshell:

The Social Mobility Index (SMI) measures the extent to which a college or university educates more economically disadvantaged students (with family incomes below the national median) at lower tuition and graduates them into good paying jobs. Competing around these factors, our higher education system can reverse the destabilizing trend towards growing economic immobility, advance the American Dream, and promote the public interest. The national economic problems today are different than they were in the 1980's. Let's solve them by focusing the chase for "prestige" around lowering tuition, recruiting more economically disadvantaged students, and ensuring that enrolled students graduate into good paying jobs....

That’s an interesting mission. So how do they do that? What is the SMI’s methodology? Here are some excerpts from the SMI site:

… the relative weight of any variable was established by testing how much a realistic change in the value of that variable would move a school within a set of rankings derived from real data. Accordingly, the greatest sensitivity for movement in the SMI rankings derives from making changes in tuition or making changes in the percentage of students within the student body whose family incomes are less than or equal to $48,000. Simply put, a school can most dramatically move itself upwards in the SMI rankings by lowering its tuition or increasing its percentage of economically disadvantaged students (or both).

The variables and their respective “sensitives” are as follows:

Variable/Sensitivity

- Tuition/311

- Economic Background/311

- Graduation Rate/155

- Early Career Salary/155

- Endowment/75

(Data are collected from third party sources including Payscale, Inc., and IPEDS.)

Unlike other rankings that rely on reputation surveys, SMI dismisses altogether the use of such data. Factoring in "opinions" from college faculty or administrators about social or economic mobility would only perpetuate the biases and stereotypes collected in such surveys. Our effort is aimed at defining an "economic mobility" index on an independent, accountable, and quantitative basis.

Despite its widespread promotion as a marker for inclusiveness, Pell grant participation is, in fact, a very poor indicator of campus economic diversity. Pell Grant participation is misleading as an indicator for access because Pell Grants are not consistently given to students from disadvantaged family economic backgrounds.... 

Net tuition is similarly excluded from the SMI calculation. ... the SMI focuses on the extent to which institutions advance social and economic mobility. Economic mobility happens when students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds apply to college, graduate, get hired and thereby move up the economic ladder....

Other ranking systems abound. Our focus in developing the SMI is to comparatively assess the role of our higher education system in providing a conduit for economic and social advancement. While some other ranking system might value as "good" a circumstance where all the graduates of a given institution take low paying jobs in, say, civil service, it is not our intent to measure that good and certainly not our intent to deny it as a good. Many other ranking systems exist to measure many other "goods." Despite its broad national importance, the good we seek to measure is more narrow: the extent to which colleges and universities contribute to solving the problem of economic divergence in our country.

My added bold emphasis highlights what I think is the core purpose of the Social Mobility Index. Although I have excerpted a sizable amount of the SMI’s methodology rationale, there is a significant amount of additional text supporting how they arrived at their rankings. I encourage you to peruse the entire text in order to see how different this approach is in ranking schools.

The result of this approach is immediately apparent by doing a quick scan of the SMI’s Top 25 schools:

1. CUNY Bernard M Baruch College

2. California State University-Chico

3. California State Polytechnic University-Pomona

4. California State University-Fresno

5. San Jose State University

6. California State University-Long Beach

7. Winston-Salem State University

8. Baptist Memorial College of Health Sciences

9. California State University-East Bay

10. Universidad Metropolitana

11. CUNY Queens College

12. San Francisco State University

13. California State University-Northridge

14. California State University-Los Angeles

15. CUNY Brooklyn College

16. Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico-Ponce

17. California State University-San Bernardino

18. CUNY Hunter College

19. California State University-Stanislaus

20. CUNY City College

21. Metropolitan State University

22. CUNY Lehman College

23. California State University-Channel Islands

24. California State University-Dominguez Hills

25. College of Staten Island CUNY

Question: What’s most notably missing here? Answer: The Ivy League

The SMI, then, at least from my perspective, appears to be the ultimate UN-U.S. News-type rankings list. For an easily scanned, full .pdf SMI list, check here.

To support my designation of the SMI as the antithesis of the U.S. News (and similar) rankings, take a look at the bottom 10 schools:

- 1,371. University of Vermont

- 1,372. Berklee College of Music

- 1,373. Boston College

- 1,374. Tulane University

- 1,375. Southern Methodist University

- 1,376. Oberlin College

- 1,377. Franklin University

- 1,378. Washington and Lee University

- 1,379. Boston Architectural College

- 1,380. Webb Institute

When’s the last time you saw Oberlin, Tulane or Boston College with a four-digit ranking number? I’ll go out on a limb here and venture that there may (may) be a whiff of inverse ratio here. That is, the higher a school is ranked in “popular” rankings, the less likely it may be to offer significant social mobility, as viewed by the SMI. But, that’s just my subjective observation.

Before diving into the comprehensive data accompanying the SMI’s rankings, scroll down to the bottom of the SMI page and read the FAQs. They will give you a fast, comprehensive and succinct overview of what’s going on with the SMI.

Bottom line: There are many different ways to rank colleges. If you’re looking for schools that might best serve the needs and aspirations of students coming from low-income families, then take a look at the Social Mobility Index.