Which schools deserve to top lists of the best colleges in the U.S.? That depends on what you mean by “best.”
If “best” means the most prestigious and more selective admissions, then sure, current college rankings are doing what they’re meant to do. But if the point of higher education is to buoy economic mobility, those lists that make headlines every year aren’t showing the whole picture.
That’s the argument made by researchers at the think tank Third Way, who developed a new way to rank the nation’s colleges. They call it the Economic Mobility Index, and it looks at two factors: a university’s proportion of students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds and the economic boost those students get after enrollment.
It’s through this lens that things start to look different. By this metric, all the top schools creating upward mobility for low-income students are Hispanic-Serving Institutions—those with Latinos making up at least 25 percent of full-time undergraduates—and they’re all concentrated in California, Texas and New York.
“The reality is selectivity and historical prestige have long been prioritized over student outcomes,” Nicole Siegel, Third Way’s deputy director of education said this week during a roundtable about the new index and HSIs. “But if the primary purpose of post-secondary education is supposed to be to catalyze an increase in economic mobility for students, we need to elevate the schools that are actually succeeding in this goal.”
Who Creates Return On Investment?
Don’t Ivy Leagues produce upward mobility for their low-income students?
“If the goal of higher education is to make sure that we have economic and social mobility, are we looking at the metrics that we value to tell the story of institutions like this?”
Deborah Santiago, CEO of Excelencia in Education
Of course they do, says a Third Way report on its economic mobility index, but the number of low-income students admitted to those universities is relatively low. Compared to the number of low-income and first-generation students who earn degrees from Hispanic-Serving Institutions, the impact of HSIs reaches much further.
Looking just at return on investment, the top ten schools offering the best overall price-to-earnings premium for low-income students served about 15,000 Pell recipients, says Lanae Erickson, Third Way vice president for education and political policy. Meanwhile, she adds, the top 10 schools based on the economic mobility index enroll nearly 100,000 Pell recipients.
Take Duke University, for example, which ranked first in the think tank’s analysis of schools’ return on investment for students. About 14 percent of its 6,700 undergraduates were Pell Grant recipients, according to the data.
If the best college in the nation is based on Third Way’s economic mobility formula, California State University-Los Angeles comes out on top. Its Pell-eligible population is 68 percent of its 24,200 undergrads. Using the same index, Duke University falls to the 722th spot.
What’s The Impact?
In short, leaders in higher education say Hispanic-Serving Institutions are doing a disproportionate amount of work boosting economic mobility for low-income and first-generation students.
But data showing that those students gain upward mobility though college is important, says Fernando Delgado, president of CUNY Lehman College. Some students who attend the Bronx campus, he says, struggle to choose when it comes to paying for their education, food or transportation.
“So for them to understand that their investment—their time, their resources and their talent—to get to college will lead to social and economic mobility is key,” Delgado says. Student demand is driving growth in the college’s nursing and science, he adds.
Given the financial barriers faced by students at Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Magdalena Hinojosa described how staff and faculty work to keep students on the path to graduation at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where Hinojosa is the senior vice president of strategic enrollment and student affairs. That includes an initiative that awards free tuition to undergrads with family incomes below $125,000 and a recent effort to fund more on-campus jobs for working students.
“If the goal of higher education is to make sure that we have economic and social mobility, are we looking at the metrics that we value to tell the story of institutions like this?” asked Deborah Santiago, CEO of Excelencia in Education, who moderated a panel that included Delgado and Hinojosa. “They’re showing that intentionality and having impact beyond the traditional measures and efforts.”