Introducing social mobility to the 2019 Best Colleges rankings generated a slew of questions from schools and media. The two questions everyone asks are: How did U.S. News calculate social mobility and which schools’ ranks…
Introducing social mobility to the 2019 Best Colleges rankings generated a slew of questions from schools and media. The two questions everyone asks are: How did U.S. News calculate social mobility and which schools’ ranks were helped by this factor?
Social mobility as a ranking factor is the byproduct of research and experimentation, dating back more than a year when the federal government began mandating that schools report income-based graduation rates. U.S. News had collected and published these data for years; however, the government mandate assisted in improving response rates to the U.S. News survey questions enough for analytical use.
U.S. News chose to calculate social mobility through two separate indicators.
One compares the graduation rates of students who received federal Pell Grants with those who did not receive these grants. Pell Grants are given to students from families with a household income that is typically less than $50,000 annually, though most Pell Grant money goes to students with a total family income below $20,000.
This indicator measures schools’ success at supporting their students from low-income families to the point of achieving equity with students from families with stronger financial backgrounds.
However, equity alone is not truly indicative of a college’s performance unless many students from both high- and low-income backgrounds completed their studies, which is why U.S. News adopted a second indicator that looks only at the graduation rate of students who received Pell Grants.
When discussing the possibility of U.S. News incorporating social mobility in the rankings at meetings, forums and conferences over the last year, school officials emphasized that examining graduation rates of students who received Pell Grants and how they compared with other students was not enough. This is because a school that enrolls very few Pell Grant students can easily cherry-pick those they believe have the highest probability of succeeding.
The U.S. News ranking formula accounts for this by giving schools more credit for achieving high graduation rates with a broader pool of students from low-income families.
Consider a hypothetical school whose fall 2011 entering class enrolled 1,000 students. From this cohort, the school had 250 students who were awarded Pell Grants, out of which 150 graduated in six years. Of the 750 students not awarded Pell Grants, 480 graduated within six years. This means the school’s cohort was comprised 25 percent of Pell students and had a Pell Grant student graduation rate of 60 percent and a non-Pell Grant student graduation rate of 64 percent.
The Pell Grant graduation rates ranking factor, which has a weight of 2.5 percent in a school’s overall ranking, simply multiplies a school’s Pell Grant student graduation rate by the proportion of students awarded Pell Grants. In the case of this hypothetical school, its final score would be 0.15, based on a calculation of 0.6*0.25.
The ranking factor that looks at Pell Grant graduation rates compared with all other students, which similarly has a weight of 2.5 percent, divides the Pell graduation rate by the non-Pell graduation rate and then adds the proportion of students awarded Pell Grants. In the case of this hypothetical school, its final score for this factor would be 1.1875, based on a calculation of 0.6/0.64 + 0.25.
Like with all other indicators used in the rankings, values are standardized about their means, meaning they are compared with those from other schools in their ranking categories. So the hypothetical school’s score of 1.1875 on the comparative factor is not necessarily better than its score of 0.15 on the noncomparative factor.
For both factors, U.S. News made additional adjustments for qualifying schools. For the ranking factor that looks at Pell Grant graduation rates compared with all other students, U.S. News capped the quotient used in the ranking model at 1.0, because all schools whose Pell Grant student graduation rates are greater than or equal to their non-Pell graduation rates have achieved full equity.
Another adjustment applicable to both indicators is that U.S. News capped the proportion of Pell students to be multiplied and added at 0.5, because the data showed a far weaker correlation between graduation rates and the proportion of students awarded Pell Grants among the minority of ranked schools where Pell Grant recipients comprised the majority of enrolled students.
Schools that were not eligible for Pell Grants, such as the military academies, and those that were nonresponders to U.S. News’ statistical survey and reported on very small cohorts received different kinds of estimates.
Why add the proportion of students awarded Pell Grants for one factor and multiply the other? Because the ratio between the Pell and non-Pell graduation rates has a narrower range of values than the noncomparative indicator.
For example, among all ranked schools, the 75th percentile ratio between Pell Grant six-year graduation rates and non-Pell Grant graduation rates was 0.95, and the 25th percentile was 0.76. By comparison, the Pell graduation rates themselves had a 75th percentile graduation rate of 66 percent and a 25th percentile graduation rate of 40 percent, with many schools near the top and bottom reporting values that were distant.
Therefore, U.S. News applied the math differently so that the proportion of students who received Pell Grants was very impactful but not the overwhelming basis for determining each school’s score. Consequently, there are schools with comparatively high proportions of Pell students that performed poorly on these indicators, and there are schools with much lower proportions that performed reasonably well.
Among the 1,189 ranked institutions that reported complete income-based graduation rate data and did not receive estimates, the median proportion of their fall 2011 entering classes that were awarded Pell Grants was 37 percent, the median Pell student six-year graduation rate was 52 percent, and the median non-Pell student six-year graduation rate was 62 percent.
Schools That Performed the Best
Seven of the top 15 National Universities — institutions offering a full range of undergraduate majors, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees — that performed strongest in social mobility were from the California public school system. These schools enrolled and graduated significant proportions of students from low-income families.
The University of California–Santa Cruz leads the way, followed by Howard University in the District of Columbia and the University of California–Riverside. Not surprisingly, each school’s overall rank improved by 11, 21 and 39 places, respectively.
Among National Liberal Arts Colleges — institutions that emphasize undergraduate liberal arts education — the strongest performers in social mobility were Agnes Scott College in Georgia, Soka University of America in California and Cornell College in Iowa. These colleges’ overall ranks improved by 10, 17 and six places, respectively.
Keep in mind that to make room for the 5 percent weight in the rankings assigned to social mobility, U.S. News eliminated acceptance rate as a ranking factor and decreased the emphasis on expert opinion, high school class standing and standardized tests. In other words, school movement in the rankings is partially attributable to social mobility but also partially attributable to how well those schools performed on other ranking factors.
The charts below showing the top performers in social mobility were determined by adding the standardized values schools received on both new indicators.