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Measuring How Colleges Help Students Achieve Social Mobility

Experts explain what colleges are doing and should be doing to help first-generation and low-income students graduate and succeed in life.

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While college leaders say higher education is still the best way for students, especially those who are low income and first generation, to achieve social mobility, surveys show Americans have lost faith in the importance of earning a college degree.

A recent poll from The New York Times showed that 41% of young adults said college is very important now compared to 74% in 2010 while 45% of Gen Z respondents said a high school diploma was enough to secure their financial future.

So what are colleges doing to help students maximize their investment and improve student outcomes? And how should journalists evaluate and cover those efforts when social mobility is measured in a variety of ways? 

Experts recently discussed how colleges help students achieve social mobility and offered reporters insight into how to write about these issues during the Education Writers Association’s 2023 Higher Education Seminar: Great Expectations at the University of California, Riverside in September.

Teresa Watanabe, an education reporter for the Los Angeles Times, moderated the panel, which included Kim Wilcox, chancellor of UC Riverside; Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of Washington Monthly; Mushtaq Gunja, senior vice president of the American Council on Education; and Zoë Corwin, a research professor who focuses on higher education at the University of Southern California.

Social Mobility: What Is It?

College rankings once focused on how selective a school was in its admissions, the graduation rate of its students, its reputation among its peers, its ability to attract research funding as well as alumni success and other metrics.

For much of the last two decades, organizations ranking colleges have increasingly focused on  measuring colleges by their ability to advance the economic prospects of graduates, also known as their social mobility.

Wilcox, who has been chancellor of UC Riverside since 2013 and advocated for higher education ranking systems to put more value on metrics related to student outcomes, said the growing emphasis on social mobility has been good, even if the ranking format in which they are presented can confuse prospective college students and their families and rankle college administrators.

UC Riverside, for example, is among the top universities for its No. 2 social mobility score from the U.S. News and World Report, which examines the graduation rate of students who received Pell Grants. This examination includes comparing Pell Grant recipients’ graduation rates relative to non-Pell Grant recipients.

In Washington Monthly 2023 college rankings, UC Riverside ranked seventh for social mobility. The magazine, which started ranking colleges and universities by their social mobility score in 2005, examines the number of Pell Grant recipients that graduate as well as the number it enrolls versus the potential pool from the geographic area.

“As a chancellor, everybody wants to be No. 1, nobody wants to be No. 2,” Wilcox said.“But as a citizen, regardless of whether I work at one university or another, there has been a transformation in America. Now, everybody talks about social mobility.”

Glastris said social mobility “is a hard thing to measure,” and it is often based on available data from the U.S. Department of Education, but he added there is a growing focus for colleges and universities demonstrating better student outcomes.

“We’ve really seen a sea change in colleges recognizing the need for social mobility and just recognizing what their own missions are supposed to be,” he said. “Student betterment, including economic betterment, is part of the mission.

“This is really the higher education system coming back to its roots and recognizing its mission,” he added.

Why College Ranking Systems Aren’t Perfect 

Researchers who study social mobility say ranking systems, while important for consumers, can suggest that one college or university is better than another. They can also miss some of the context important for prospective college students – as well as reporters – to understand.

Indeed, Gunja takes issue with the very idea of rankings. In addition to his position with ACE, Gunja is the executive director of the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which tries to categorize similar institutions rather than rank them.

A ranking system may imply an institution ranked first in the number of enrolled Pell Grant recipients it admitted is doing better than an institution ranked third, or that one ranked 75th is better than one ranked 90th, Gunja said. But he added that might not take into account other data points reporters should be aware of when looking at those lists.

“It may well be that an institution is doing well on the access side, but not as well on the outcome side,” Gunja said. “I worry very much [about] comparing unlike institutions to one another.”

Ranking systems also don’t often take geography into account, he added, particularly when looking at outcomes. A student earning $50,000 a few years after graduating from a college in Mississippi will have a different socioeconomic experience than someone who graduates from a big coastal university where cost of living is higher.

Corwin, who does qualitative research looking at the experiences of first-generation college students, also said rankings can miss whether those individuals are meeting their own aspirations, which don’t fit neatly inside the box used for ranking colleges.

“One of the things I’ve heard over the last two decades working with first-generation students is many aspire to return to their communities,” she said, which even if they are successful could change what it means for their earning potential, economic stability and social mobility.

Reporters, in addition to looking at how access and affordability affect social mobility, should examine what colleges are doing to improve the social-emotional wellbeing of students and if they’re setting students up for success, Corwin said.

What’s Important to Understanding Social Mobility?

There are several key things reporters should examine when writing about a college’s commitment to social mobility, the panelists said.

Wilcox said a university’s “culture, people, and programs” – in that order – will signal whether or not its leaders value social mobility. The questions a search committee asks candidates for administrator positions can reveal each candidate’s commitment to the issue, he said.

The presence of organizations dedicated to improving the experience for students of color or low-income students can be indicators that a university has placed emphasis on improving the social mobility of its students, Wilcox added.

Corwin suggested reporters look at resources like career and counseling centers on campuses and at what level they are being utilized as a marker of commitment to social mobility. She also said reporters should look at whether those services are “meeting students where they are and need to be.”

Whether a college or university is even tracking its Pell-eligible students and their outcomes are also a signpost.

“You’ll know whether or not a university is dedicated to social mobility if they are tracking data,” Gunja said, particularly the admission, retention and graduation rates disaggregated by race.

Wilcox agreed collecting data is important, but he said that in itself wasn’t indicative of whether campuses are working to improve their economic prospects of their graduates.

“Having data and goals are important; measuring things is important, but you never fatten a pig by weighing it,” he said. “You have to do something.”

Story Ideas: Tips for Writing About Social Mobility

Corwin said reporters should look for students “who are on the margins, who don’t fit in” and ask them about their experiences with higher education.

If those students aren’t easily found on the quad or a campus plaza, they might be located on social media or in other areas where youth assemble, she said.

Wilcox said reporters should spend less time on Harvard and other Ivy League schools, which are attended by a very small number of the college-going population, and more time on what other institutions are doing to serve students.

“We have to find a way to amplify the opportunities at all universities,” he said, including trade or technical colleges that are becoming more attractive to a growing number of students.

Glastris said reporters should compare the data often used to describe social mobility – access and outcome of Pell-eligible students, for example – of the colleges or universities they cover with the national average.

Gunja said reporters should highlight institutions that enroll and graduate a high percentage of Pell students, or shine a light on those schools that enroll and graduate a smaller number of students who qualify for Pell Grants – stories that could help readers understand the differences in social mobility across higher education.