Photo by Jason Dent on Unsplash

We’ve been talking about the role of colleges in social mobility for years now. Washington Monthly started ranking colleges that way more than a decade ago. Raj Chetty’s groundbreaking data came out in 2017. US News & World Report added it as a factor to their rankings a few years back and then started releasing separate lists of which places do well by that measure.

Despite the attention, we sometimes muddle exactly what we’re talking about: Do we focus on which colleges are doing the most for the individuals who are lucky enough to get within their gates? Or should we lift up the places that are helping the greatest number move up the economic ladder? Essentially, is all this social-mobility ranking talk about the biggest impact for society or the biggest impact for the individual?

James Murphy, a writer and analyst at Education Reform Now, says both perspectives are important but the analysis he released this week heavily rewards the institutions that enroll and graduate a lot of low-income students. (Explore his social-mobility impact ranking here.)

To create the ranking, he set three thresholds that institutions had to clear:

  • graduate at least half their Pell Grant students within six years;
  • have 3 out of 4 of their former students paying down their loans within five years;
  • have fewer than 6.9 percent of them defaulting on their loans

Just over 600 of the nation’s nearly 2,000 four-year colleges cleared those bars, meaning that Murphy says you can think of all of them as “social mobility elevators” to some degree. (Quick aside: just three for-profit colleges made that cut — another reminder of how much that sector fails to deliver good outcomes.)

Let’s walk through a bit of that data on the 614 colleges that did clear those bars.

Here’s a scatterplot showing all of them, charting their Pell-recipient graduation rates against the portion of the undergrads that receive Pell Grants. Roughly a third of students in the country qualify for a Pell Grant and most of those go to students from households earning less than $65,000.

Plot of the 614 places that Murphy labeled “social mobility elevators”

You can see the pattern we know all to well: our most selective colleges (I’ve marked the Ivy League in red) enroll a really low percentage of poor students, but the ones that they do enroll end up doing really well. All those Ivy League Pell grad rates top 90 percent.

But let’s get to Murphy’s main point. Here’s another chart of those same 614 colleges, but this time I’ve sized the dots based on the total number of Pell students. Those big dots out to right represent thousands and thousands of more low-income students. (As Murphy emphasizes: the University of Central Florida alone enrolls way more Pell students than the 12 Ivy Plus universities combined.)

Dots are sized based on number of Pell recipients

He sums it up:

Too many highly selective institutions that have very high graduation rates and billion dollar plus endowments, like Tufts University (#401) and Washington and Lee University (#602), effectively hoard opportunity. For the select few low-income and even middle-income students who get into these prestigious institutions, the payoff can be very large indeed. The problem is too few are admitted and enrolled. These highly selective universities play an outsized role in politics, finance, science and medicine, so it is essential that they increase socioeconomic and racial diversity.

At some point, Murphy said, the conversation has to also include increasing the number of seats at our top colleges. “Part of it is always going to be opportunity hoarding,” Murphy told me. “The prestige rests on how so few people went there.”

I was reminded of that this week talking with Nick Ibarra, our local reporter in Santa Cruz, Calif. He’s working on a story about UC Santa Cruz’s plan to potentially enroll 8,500 more students over the next 20 years. Can you imagine how different our social-mobility conversations would be if every rich private university had a 20-year growth plan focused on expanding seats?

Instead, most are more like that famous university 40 miles to the north. Back in 1970, Stanford enrolled 6,221 undergraduates. Now — half a century later, during which California’s population has doubled — Stanford enrolls … 6,994 undergrads.

— Scott Smallwood

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A ‘Playground’ for Rich Out-of-Staters

U. of Colorado at Boulder

Speaking of social mobility, our Colorado reporter, Jason Gonzales, examined the record of his state’s flagship on serving low-income residents. The bottom line: It’s not very good, and it hasn’t gotten much better over time.

The percentage of Pell Grant recipients at the University of Colorado at Boulder has moved from 12% in 2008 to 16% a decade later. Those numbers look a lot more like Harvard’s and Stanford’s than many of its public flagship peers’, in places like Arizona and California.

We asked Jason, who works for our partner Chalkbeat Colorado, to share some thoughts about what struck him as he reported the story.

Q. What surprised you most?

A. I knew CU Boulder’s numbers were low from previous research. I also have experience with what I’ve seen firsthand on the campus. As a Pell student that graduated from the school more than a decade ago, I was always aware of how few students shared similar backgrounds and looked like me.

I think what stood out to me is just how persistent the issue has been for the school. I do know they’ve tried to bring in more students from low-income backgrounds, but it’s interesting to see how the school stacks up to other flagships.

Q. What one data point really stood out?

A. CU Boulder ranks fifth lowest among flagships in the enrollment of students with Pell Grants. Throughout the reporting, I tried to keep in mind that this is really about where the school sits compared to others. This issue for CU Boulder isn’t in a vacuum.

Q. What’s at stake?

A. There is a quote in the story about Colorado as a “playground” for rich people from out of state. Through the reporting, I really felt like that hit the nail on the head. My analysis is this is all about economic mobility and opportunity.

Colorado residents are at risk of being left behind in the state’s thriving economy if they don’t have the same access to the state’s top university.

Q. Why does it matter whether Colorado’s flagship has a record more like Harvard’s or more like the University of California’s on the percentage of low-income students it enrolls?

A. That’s a question I asked every person I interviewed: Why does enrolling Pell students matter? There are other universities in the state educating students, so should we care?

The answer I heard is a resounding yes.

To put this into context, as a flagship, CU Boulder receives more state tax dollars and has a mission to educate Colorado students. The school should be held accountable for who it is serving.

Q. What are you planning next?

A. My next story will explore what completion numbers look like in the state. Access without completion doesn’t mean much, so I want to know where the gaps are.

Double Your Impact

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With your support, we’ve been able to grow our local network this year to seven partnerships in six states. We’re working to sustain that in-depth coverage and build on it in 2021, connecting more people in more communities to better reporting about their colleges.

Here’s where to give to support our work. Thank you again.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Could Joe Biden make a commitment to welcoming international students a central component of repositioning the United States as an open, confident global leader? That’s an idea Karin Fischer tackles in latitude(s) this week.

It comes from Samantha Power, a former UN ambassador and current Harvard professor. In the current issue of Foreign Policy Power suggested that Biden make a “major speech” emphasizing his administration’s intent to work with U.S. colleges to once again increase their enrollment of international students.

If Biden were to deliver such a speech, though, his audience can’t just be the rest of the world, Karin writes. It also has to be aimed closer to home. International-student policy has been politicized, and, Karin says, he’ll need to reaffirm to his fellow Americans the value in having them here.

• In Ohio, Amy Morona, our reporter with Crain’s Cleveland Business, writes this week about why declines in international enrollments matter to the state and its universities. International college students contributed an estimated $1.2 billion to Ohio’s economy and supported more than 12,600 jobs in 2019.

But declining enrollments threaten to weaken that impact, Amy reports, as well as a lucrative stream of income for universities.

Kent State University and Case Western Reserve University, for example, are reporting double-digit percentage drops in total international enrollment this fall, mirroring a national trend in which international enrollment nationwide dropped 16%.

Naomi Harris, our reporter with PublicSource in Pittsburgh, is working on a story right now about the experience of the city’s international students under the Trump administration.

They’re left with a deep sense of instability, she’s finding. And, even with a new administration on its way, some are wondering if there’s a better future for them outside of the United States. Look for Naomi’s story next week.


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