How well are colleges moving people up social and economic ladders? And are we paying enough attention?

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What It Looks Like to Prioritize Social Mobility

One of Kim Wilcox’s talking points is this: his university enrolls more Pell Grant recipients than the entire Ivy League combined.

He’s right: the University of California at Riverside, where he’s chancellor, had 11,043 undergraduates with Pell Grants in 2016–17, according to the most-recent federal data. The eight Ivies together had 9,875.

Another point of pride: Riverside has pretty much eliminated gaps in retention and graduation rates across income levels and ethnicity.

So a first-time, full-time student who receives a Pell Grant — which half of Riverside’s undergraduates do — is as likely as a student who does not receive a Pell Grant to come back for their sophomore year and to graduate within six years. The same tends to be true for students who are first-generation students (more than half at Riverside are) compared with those who are not.

Riverside’s record led it to be named the nation’s top performer on social mobility last week by U.S. News, the first time the magazine published a ranked list of colleges on that score.

The magazine’s social-mobility rankings are based on graduation rates of Pell Grant students, weighted to give credit to colleges with larger populations of those students, and how the graduation rates of Pell Grant students compare with their peers at the same institution.

Wilcox has long been critical of rankings like U.S. News for focusing too much on factors like reputation and not enough on how colleges help students (or don’t). That’s what the public mission of higher education is about, he says, and it’s what parents in their living rooms want to know: Will this university be transformational in the life of my child?

Until recently Riverside had been steadily falling in many national rankings. Then, when U.S. News began factoring social mobility into its overall scores last year, Riverside rose dozens of spots. This year it’s #91 among national universities.

“I’m so happy the national conversation is changing,” Wilcox told me, “but we have more to do.”

For one thing, he says, there’s still too much attention paid to the Ivy League. Those campuses simply don’t matter very much to most Americans. And that outsized attention, he adds, distracts families and students — funders, too — from more-important issues and the places that are doing the most to serve the public good.

“Every time an article talks about Harvard,” he says, “that means it didn’t talk about Cleveland State.”

Measuring Equity

The notion of equity, and colleges’ role in advancing it, comes up now in other conversations about metrics, too.

You can see, for example, how well different colleges do in moving students from lower levels of income brackets to higher ones in data collected by Opportunity Insights and published in The New York Times. (Campuses of the City University of New York and California State University are among those that perform well.)

This year Washington Monthly brought back its “affordable elite” category, which ranks the nation’s most-selective universities by how well they promote upward social mobility. The measure combines a number of factors, including net price, students’ future earnings, graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients compared with their peers, and enrollment of first-generation students. (CUNY’s Baruch College topped this list.)

Riverside’s Secret

So what makes a difference? How can colleges do better?

Wilcox says he gets asked a lot about the university’s “secret sauce.” He’s decided it comes down to three key ingredients: culture, people, and programs. And — this is important — in that order.

A lot of people will ask first about what programs they can replicate, he says, but programs are just tools. First, you have to create an expectation that equality and social mobility are what you do, and then only hire people who believe in that ethos. They, in turn, will reinforce the culture. Then programs like learning communities and other support systems can follow.

“This is a long-term commitment,” Wilcox says. “You can’t change a culture without time.”

In looking into the Pell Grant stats at research universities, we made a simple chart that looks at how they’ve changed since 2007–8 and just how many Pell students are on each campus. You can explore that chart here.

— Sara Hebel

Land of Enchantment and Free Tuition?

New Mexico’s governor proposed a free-tuition plan this week that garnered wide coverage. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s proposal — which still needs to be approved by the state legislature — would make tuition free for state residents at public colleges, regardless of family income.

The state estimates that 55,000 students would benefit and that it would cost the government $25 million to $35 million a year. Does that sound like a lot?

It works out to $450 to $640 per student. And it shows the power of a clear political message.

“Free college” sounds amazing.

“Free tuition” still sounds great.

“State to give 55,000 students who qualify roughly $500” is a lot less ground-breaking.

Several things make New Mexico distinctive:

  • The state already has a lottery-funded scholarship program that works in many similar ways (and provides an average of $2,000 a year).
  • Tuition at public institutions is relatively low (just $7,500 at the University of New Mexico).
  • A higher percentage of New Mexican students qualify for federal Pell Grants. That means a “last-dollar” program like this won’t apply to poorer students at community colleges where Pell covers their tuition.

This Chronicle piece from earlier this year does a good job of laying out the various terms and types of “free-college” programs.

Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of the New Mexico announcement featured a range of critics (it’s regressive; it doesn’t actually help the poor) and supporters (its simple message is valuable).

Whether a $30-million scholarship program is game-changing is all about context. Here are other things with a similar price tag:

  • The prize money for the 2019 Women’s World Cup (the men’s was $400 million the year before)
  • What the Los Angeles Lakers will pay LeBron James for this season ($37-million)
  • Total compensation in 2018 for Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase
  • This Manhattan condo


The University of Texas’s Secret Strategy to Keep Out Black Students

Long-hidden documents show the school’s blueprint for slowing integration during the civil-rights era. (The Atlantic)

With New Investigation at Duke and UNC, Feds Hunt Anti-Israel Bias in Higher Education

The Education Department is investigating a Middle East studies program run by Duke and the University of North Carolina, citing, among other issues, how Judaism is discussed. (The New York Times)

Feds provide info on colleges they say will help consumers avoid bad actors

The Trump administration is pushing to make cost of college more transparent as an alternative to regulating institutions but the data is inaccessible. (Hechinger Report)

80 Years Ago, a Football Powerhouse Ditched the Sport as a ‘Crass’ Distraction.

Why haven’t more colleges followed suit? (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

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