Social Mobility Index

Opportunity through US Higher Education

SMI Purpose

  • Background

    Imagine if a century ago free access to a high school education in the United States had been available only to the wealthiest families. Imagine, further, that anybody else who had chosen to enter high school could have made this choice only if they had been willing to take on crushing debt and risk not finding a job when high school was finished. If these had been the conditions restricting access to what was then a fundamental education, what would the US economy and our democracy be like today, 100 years later?

    More than mere historical speculation, this question is now one about our future. And that is because college has become the high school of our age. The higher education degree has become the new high school diploma, an essential requisite for obtaining reasonable employment and achieving economic mobility in the 21st century.

    Yet despite the growing economic importance of the college degree, the proportion of US high school graduates going to college – a figure that increased for decades – is now declining. The upward ratchet in tuition since the 1980's has progressively limited affordability and access to college education. In 1980, for example, college tuition took an average bite of 26 percent of the median family income in the US; by 2004, this figure had more than doubled, to 56 percent.

    One of the main culprits driving the tuition increases, and thus one of the central impediments to economic mobility, has been higher education's pursuit of the rankings, particularly those put forward by US News & World Report. Asked to explain the factors behind tuition jumps at Cornell, economists there remarked that "how much the university spends per student for education and maintaining a low student/faculty ratio both weigh heavily in determining rankings. Any slippage in the rankings is extremely costly to the institution." A study published in Research in Higher Education by a former Provost at the University of Rochester added that if a college or university wanted to move into one of the top 20 slots in the US News rankings it would have to increase spending by tens of millions of dollars a year.

    It's time to confront and change this dynamic – a dynamic that ratchets costs, restricts educational opportunity for American families, and thereby widens income inequality. Any factor that feeds income inequality injures our economy's potential for sustaining growth because it makes recessions more frequent and shortens periods of economic recovery. According to IMF economists Andrew Berg and Jonathan Ostry, "The key result from the joint analysis is that income distribution survives as one of the most robust and important factors associated with growth duration..... increasing the length of growth spells, rather than just getting growth going, is critical to achieving income gains over the long term...." Given today's record high level of economic inequality and its destabilizing effect on the American Dream, higher education administrators who still boast about, promote or otherwise chase US News "prestige" perpetuate an ecosystem from the 1980's that culls for, grooms, and celebrates the rich. In so doing, they contradict their own institution's commitment to promoting the public interest. By contrast, higher education's strongest leaders, aware of the national imperative to restore the American Dream, are actively reframing the US Higher Education ecosystem to educate all driven individuals regardless of their economic background. The Social Mobility Index celebrates their inspired contribution.

    The Social Mobility Index (SMI) measures the extent to which a college or university educates more economically disadvantaged students (with family incomes below the national median) at lower tuition and graduates them into good paying jobs. Competing around these factors, our higher education system can reverse the destabilizing trend towards growing economic immobility, advance the American Dream, and promote the public interest. The national economic problems today are different than they were in the 1980's. Let's solve them by focusing the chase for "prestige" around lowering tuition, recruiting more economically disadvantaged students, and ensuring that enrolled students graduate into good paying jobs.

    (adapted from "How Higher Education Can Improve Economic Mobility in the United States")
  • Contrasting SMI methodology with other higher education ranking methods.

    Unlike the popular periodicals, we did not assign a priori a percentage weight to the five variables in the SMI formula and add those values together to obtain a score. Instead, the relative weight of any variable was established by testing how much a realistic change in the value of that variable would move a school within a set of rankings derived from real data. Accordingly, the greatest sensitivity for movement in the SMI rankings derives from lowering sticker tuition or increasing the percentage of students within the student body whose family incomes are less than or equal to $48,000 (the SMI “access” variables). Simply put, a school can most dramatically move itself upwards in the SMI rankings by lowering its tuition or increasing its percentage of economically disadvantaged students (or both).

    While tuition and economic background of the student body are the most sensitive variables in the SMI, three other variables in descending order of sensitivity are also critical. These are: graduation rates, early career net salaries, and endowment. While capable of producing big movements, graduation rate and early career net salary (the SMI “outcome” variables) carry approximately 1/2 the sensitivity of the first two variables. The rationale for this is not only that tuition and economic background are the most critical front end drivers for access, they are also the two variables over which policy makers have almost 100 percent, decisive control. By contrast, graduation rates and early career net salaries, while strong enablers of economic mobility, are not necessarily useful indicators of mobility if they primarily describe outcomes for wealthier students. Of course, graduation rates are important in general vis a vis economic mobility because college graduates outearn those who do not finish their degrees. [Cf. https://www.thebalance.com/the-cost-of-college-dropout-4174303 ] However, from a policy standpoint, there is an invidious “shortcut” available if a university is seeking higher graduation rates: admit wealthier students. This owes to the fact that higher graduation rates correlate strongly with higher family incomes. [Cf: https://edpolicy.education.jhu.edu/family-income-and-the-college-completion-gap/ ]. We attempt to mitigate this flaw in aggregate graduation data for the SMI by using only graduation rates for Pell recipients. Yet because Pell grants are being increasingly awarded to richer families, they no longer serve as an unambiguous indicator that the recipients are from economically underserved families (see discussion below). Hence, the reduced weighting of graduation rates in the SMI formula.

    In a similar way, early career salary is not necessarily an indicator of upward mobility. Just as students from richer families tend to have higher graduation rates, they also enjoy greater advantage with respect to landing higher paying jobs (Cf. https://1gyhoq479ufd3yna29x7ubjn-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/ES-Born_to_win-schooled_to_lose.pdf). And even if two students from similar economic backgrounds graduate, but one graduates with far less debt than the other, that student can enjoy much faster upward mobility. Consequently, we strengthen salary as an indicator of economic mobility by computing it “net” of the average yearly student debt service carried by the graduates of any given institution.

    Finally, endowment carries 1/2 the sensitivity of the outcome variables. Although it is a strong indicator of the power to act, endowment works inversely in the SMI as a tie-breaker. The basic logic is that all things otherwise being equal in the SMI between school A and school B, if school A has lower endowment than school B, then school A is doing its work more efficiently. By virtue of its larger endowment, school B has untapped potential to do more for social mobility and therefore will appear slightly lower in the rankings than school A. This view of the endowment corpus is the opposite of that taken by popular periodicals where stockpiling and sitting on endowment money is somehow taken as a measure of goodness and "prestige."

    The relative sensitivity of the variables in the 2019 SMI are as follows:

    Variable Sensitivity
    Tuition 320
    Economic Background 327
    Graduation Rate 168
    Early Career Salary 166
    Endowment 79

    The integer associated with each variable indicates the average absolute position change each school experienced during testing when that variable was held constant. This sensitivity effect also works in reverse. That is, if the SMI formula had been calculated devoid of tuition to establish a ranking and then real tuition numbers were added back into the formula, each school's position would have changed, on average, by 320 places. Policy makers should note that the higher the sensitivity of an SMI variable, the more likely improvements to that variable will advance a school's SMI ranking.

  • Why We Measure Enablers for Social Mobility

    As Stanford historian Walter Scheidel suggests in The Great Leveler, “We need to ask whether great inequality has ever been alleviated without great violence, how more benign influences compare to the power of this Great Leveler, and whether the future is likely to be very different—even if we may not like the answers.” The fact that income and wealth inequality is now driving unrest around the world is no longer in question. [Cf. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/apr/07/global-inequality-tipping-point-2030 ] For example, although Hong Kong boasts a GNI per capita greater than the United States, the nation’s high divergence of wealth is a prime factor driving violent unrest. Four families in Hong Kong now control 80 percent of the real estate yet the average person lives in a 2 square meter space. [Cf. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1163907.shtml ]

    In Santiago, Chile, a seemingly innocuous 4 cent hike in the cost of a subway ride triggered massive unrest that sent 1 million people—most of them “middle class”—onto the streets.
    “Young, old, poor and middle-class, protesters said they were united by frustration with the so-called neoliberal model… Hundreds of thousands are hobbled by educational loans that can follow them into their 40s and even 50s.”

    Given that the United States is now the least economically mobile among all developed nations, it is naïve to believe we are exempt from the potential for similar unrest.
    [Cf. https://voxeu.org/article/exploding-wealth-inequality-united-states ]
    As growing economic divergence between rich and poor triggers rebellion around the world –Hong Kong, Chile, France, Brexit, Iraq—we believe dedicated citizens must take action to ensure that our higher education system is restored as an engine for upward mobility. The following chart illustrates the extent of declining mobility in the US and the challenge we face in restoring the American Dream:

    We see from this chart that the chances today’s 35 year old will earn more than his/her parents when they were 35 has plummeted to under 50 percent from over 90 percent a generation ago. Yet this study failed to take into account the far greater debt service today’s college educated 35 year old now labors under compared to his/her parents at the same time during their careers. Factoring this in would reveal that the odds of upward mobility for today's generation are well under 50 percent.

    Scholarly research aimed at measuring economic mobility starts by comparing longitudinal earnings and income data across generations. The Equality of Opportunity Project famously compared US colleges and universities by examining income data compiled over several generations for their graduates.
    [Cf. http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/college/ ]

    According to the EOP, for example, SUNY Stonybrook far outperformed Columbia University in terms of providing upward economic mobility for its graduates. Yet despite such valuable and interesting comparisons, this particular EOP initiative appears to be a one-time project. Owing to the fact that generations of income data are required to complete such a study, one could not expect meaningful changes to be detectable one year, five years, or even ten years out regardless of whether widespread policy changes were instituted nationally. For example, if today Columbia were to aggressively lower its tuition and expand the economic inclusion of its incoming class, the resulting effect on upward mobility might not be detectable for at least a generation using any longitudinal study.

    Unfortunately, we can no longer afford delay. As a society, we must provide prompt feedback for positive changes applied in our US higher education system towards enhancing economic mobility. Accordingly, The Social Mobility Index measures and compares US institutions, not according to longitudinal data compiled over generations, but according to the fundamental enablers and drivers for economic mobility at work today in our higher education system. Thus, any given institution that chooses to more aggressively lower its sticker tuition or admit a more economically diverse class will automatically move up in next year’s SMI.

  • Source of Data

    Data are collected from third party sources including the US Dept of Education’s College Scorecard and IPEDS

  • Excluded Variables

    Unlike other rankings that rely on reputation surveys, SMI dismisses altogether the use of such data. Factoring in "opinions" from college faculty or administrators about social or economic mobility would only perpetuate the biases and stereotypes collected in such surveys. Our effort is aimed at defining an "economic mobility" index on an independent, accountable, and quantitative basis.

    Despite its widespread promotion as a marker for inclusiveness, Pell grant participation is, in fact, a very poor indicator of campus economic diversity. Pell Grant participation is misleading as an indicator for access because Pell Grants are not consistently given to students from disadvantaged family economic backgrounds. We broke new ground in the 2015 SMI by revealing, for each campus, the minimum percentage of its Pell Grant recipients who come from families making more than $48,000 annually. The data show that at many campuses, over half of their Pell Grant recipients are from this richer segment of our nation's population. Further, as reported by the US Dept of Education, deductions and exclusions in the Pell Grant formula now permit some families making over $100,000 per year to receive Pell Grant awards. The data make it clear that Pell Grant participation should not be considered a valid indicator of a college's commitment to access and inclusiveness and is therefore not included in the SMI formula. (Cf. https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-pell-grant-proxy-a-ubiquitous-but-flawed-measure-of-low-income-student-enrollment/)
    (Cf. https://www.forbes.com/sites/prestoncooper2/2018/02/02/pell-grants-are-now-a-middle-class-benefit/#7b5f8fbf4a1f)

    Net tuition is similarly excluded from the SMI calculation. It would seem reasonable on the face of it to incorporate net tuition rather than gross tuition (aka sticker price) in the calculation of the SMI. After all, once discounts and aid are applied, the "real cost" of attending college declines substantially from the "sticker price." However, unlike measures that seek to cull the cost/benefit of attending college, the SMI focuses on the extent to which institutions advance social and economic mobility. Economic mobility happens when students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds apply to college, graduate, get hired and thereby move up the economic ladder. This sequence is immediately broken, however, if these students are repelled at the start by either the high sticker cost of tuition, or the byzantine financial aid processes that, only if carefully followed, may yield lower tuition costs. A key factor in this sequence suppressing college participation of the disadvantaged is its pricing opacity. Regardless of how skillfully and patiently an applicant navigates the financial aid maze, the level of any given university's institutional aid cannot be known by him/her in advance. The university must first assemble admission offers to its freshman class, wait for acceptances of those offers, and, depending on the need mix of the students, parcel out available funding as award packages. To understand the suppression effect of this byzantine process, imagine what would happen to sales of cars if their price tags had huge, unaffordable numbers that could only be reduced if potential buyers were willing to apply for the right to purchase, fill out more forms to demonstrate financial need, and then wait months for possible acceptance/denial as a customer. Car sales would plummet as consumers look elsewhere for alternative transportation. This same suppression on access is playing out today in the United States as students and families from disadvantaged backgrounds forgo college attendance. Owing to these powerful suppression effects surrounding net tuition, we believe it is irresponsible to formulate any measure of economic mobility around this datum. The simple fact is that to solve the economic mobility problem in the United States, the spiraling growth of sticker tuition must be reversed.

    “A study published … by Luke Behaunek, now dean of students at Simpson College, and Ann Gansemer-Topf, associate professor at Iowa State University … found that …. the schools that increased their rates of discounting most over the period studied failed to bring in more low-income or minority students than the other institutions in the sample. “Students — low-income, underrepresented minority — still look at sticker price,” Gansemer-Topf said. “Even though institutions will say, ‘No, no, you probably won’t pay that.’ ”” (Cf. https://hechingerreport.org/university-of-chicago-projected-to-be-the-first-u-s-university-to-charge-100000-a-year/ )

    Retention data such as the freshman dropout rate are very important indicators of student engagement and no doubt indicate progress towards learning and economic mobility. But in the final analysis, graduating into paying jobs evidences economic mobility. Therefore, we subsume retention metrics by incorporating graduation rates in the SMI.

    Variables such as reduced class size and higher faculty salaries (as a supposed measure of "prestige") are relevant, if at all, only in that they drive costs and tuition higher. Wasted attention to "improving" such variables countervails student access. One egregious example of policy sycophancy to the periodical rankings has a noted university mandating no class sizes beyond 19 despite a student body of 16,000 (19 is a cutoff for the periodical in terms of evidencing "small class" sizes). Not only is there no research to support that 19 students vs 20 vs 30 in a college setting carries any impact on learning outcomes, such arbitrary measures clearly increase costs and jeopardize accessibility. Another example of periodical ranking sycophancy is a noted institution soliciting its graduates for minimal $5 donations so as to "prove" widespread support of the institution for the rankings. The pitch averred that the more graduates who so contributed, the greater would be the "value" of their degree. None of the data around such self-aggrandizing "policy" has anything to do with a university's responsibility and role in addressing the national problem of economic mobility.

    Student "selectivity"—i.e. SAT/ACT scores at admission—is irrelevant to measuring social mobility. In fact, since SAT/ACT scores correlate with high family income, it may be the case statistically that high entrance test scores could serve as a counter indicator as to whether a school is effective at recruiting and advancing students who are economically disadvantaged. (Cf. https://napavalleyregister.com/opinion/editorial/commentary-five-myths-about-meritocracy/article_ae49f5a6-9dc1-5835-8534-b1979c071fbc.html )

    Another argument against focusing on SAT/ACT scores could be that a college's contribution to social and economic mobility is greater when it is the college that has been genuinely responsible for improvements in the student's "aptitude," not an applicant's prep school or test prep course. Until there is widespread adoption of the CLA (Collegiate Learning Assessment) or some equivalent, data on aptitude improvement during the college experience remain unavailable. We therefore exclude any use of standardized test scores.

  • Why Salary Matters

    It is a canard that education resulting in "good jobs" must necessarily be illiberal. We agree that undergraduate education, in particular, should support intellectual roaming. Fortunately, core requirements for undergraduates at most institutions encourage a diverse foundation of coursework. As we continue to move deeper into a knowledge economy, smart employers will increasingly recognize that the likelihood for quality work is enhanced by broad knowledge and skills. Metaphor is the partner of creativity and invention, and students who study most broadly carry the greatest potential for innovation. As far as we know, there is no research that demonstrates that achieving a high salary upon graduation correlates with experiencing a limited range of intellectual exploration and skill development during college. A high salary is only a proxy to be sure, but a validator nonetheless of a student's success at intellectual and skill development.

    Other ranking systems abound. Our focus in developing the SMI is to comparatively assess the role of our higher education system in providing a conduit for economic and social advancement. While some other ranking system might value as "good" a circumstance where all the graduates of a given institution take low paying jobs in, say, civil service, it is not our intent to measure that good and certainly not our intent to deny it as a good. Many other ranking systems exist to measure many other "goods." Despite its broad national importance, the good we seek to measure is more narrow: the extent to which colleges and universities contribute to solving the problem of economic divergence in our country.

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As Tuition Goes Up, Inclusiveness Plummets

As Tuition Goes Up, Inclusiveness Plummets

Frequently Asked Questions

Information about the SMI

  • Why is there a need for a college ranking like the SMI?

    Among developed nations, the United States now provides the least economic opportunity and mobility for its citizens. Not only is economic mobility becoming more and more constrained in the US, the gap between rich and poor is now as large as it was in Europe during the Belle Epoque – an unsustainable period of inequality that finally collapsed under the weight of the Great Depression and two world wars. http://www.sciencemag.org/site/special/inequality/ To avoid repeating a similar fate, we need to change the generally accepted value system in the United States that views as "Best" those institutions that are rich and replace it with one where "Best" instead means those institutions that are acting to solve the urgent problem of declining economic mobility in our country.

  • How could such economic immobility and inequality develop in the US, the "land of opportunity?"

    One major factor has been the erosion over the past 40 years of higher education's historic civic mission in favor of a new mission: spending for glory in US News' rankings. Despite unease with this hollow pursuit, colleges nevertheless obeisantly seek to make classes smaller, enroll more students with high test scores (i.e., those from richer families), hoard endowments, build expensive facilities, and market themselves to each other for favor in "peer assessments." The resulting tuition bomb has not only suppressed access, it has locked a $1.6 trillion ball and chain around the ankles of those who were "lucky" enough to attend college. Whether tuition can now be lowered and access to higher education opened to the economically disadvantaged will be a powerful determinant of whether we can make good as a society on restoring broad promise for economic opportunity.

  • How is the SMI different from other college rankings?

    The SMI differs from most other rankings in that it focuses directly on the factors that enable economic mobility. To what extent does a college or university educate more economically disadvantaged people (family incomes below the national median) at lower tuition so that they graduate into good paying jobs? The colleges that do the best at this rank higher according to the SMI. Gone is any quixotic pretense of "best" college based on arbitrary or irrelevant popularity criteria such as percentage of applicants denied.

    Put another way – Is one college "better" than another because it turns away more students? Or is it "better" because it draws in and hoards more endowment money? Or is it "better" because other college administrators say it is? These criteria only mirror popular sentiment, and preoccupation with them amounts to a zero-sum game of institutional narcissism. The only winners are the publications busily harvesting "eyeballs" and advertising dollars. Everybody else loses: students; indebted families; our nation's economic and social stability; and higher education's credibility for critical thought and civic purpose.

  • What is the methodology for the SMI?

    The SMI is computed from five variables: published tuition, percent of student body whose families whose incomes are below $48K (slightly below the US median), graduation rate, median salary approximately 5 years after graduation, and endowment. Unlike other rankings that assign percentages to variables and then sum for a score, the SMI variables are mathematically balanced against live data so that they fall into three weighting tiers: a) tuition and economic disadvantage at the highest tier (access); b) graduation rate and salary at the next, half-weight tier (outcome); and c) the endowment at a half again, or 1/4 weight tier (institutional capability). Each weighting tier is thus twice as "sensitive" as the next in that making realistic changes to the variables at that tier can cause approximately twice as much movement in the rankings.

  • Why did you choose this particular methodology?

    Enhancing economic mobility means providing access to economically disadvantaged students, graduating them, and moving them into good paying jobs. Each tier constitutes a proxy for one of three concepts: access, outcome, and institutional capability. Considering these tiers in reverse helps explain the intuition behind their weightings. The bigger the endowment a university possesses, the more capability it has to address any problem. Yet because drawdowns on an endowment can be aimed at purposes separate from the problem of economic mobility, endowment primarily serves in the SMI as a tie-breaker. If school A and school B are very close with respect to social mobility policy, yet B has a larger endowment, A is rewarded by the SMI for having applied its resources more efficiently.

    Optimizing outcomes is key to economic mobility, hence the heavier weighting in this tier. Yet no matter how many students who graduate and then land good paying jobs, economic mobility is suppressed if tuition in the US continues to ramp unchecked. Students and families cannot advance economically if they must labor under huge debt. And, of course, no matter how high the graduation rate and no matter how high the early career salary, if higher education serves primarily as a finishing school for scions of the privileged, then economic mobility goes unaddressed. That is why the access proxy (tuition and economic background) is assigned the greatest weighting. Lowering tuition and recruiting more economically disadvantaged students is the fundamental driver for improving economic mobility.

  • What does a high SMI ranking mean?

    A high SMI ranking means that a college is contributing in a responsible way to solving the dangerous problem of declining economic mobility in our country.

  • What does a low SMI ranking mean?

    Just the opposite. All schools adopt the rhetoric of access and opportunity. But a school with a low SMI is more likely to be failing, sometimes miserably, at providing real opportunity and advancement for the economically disadvantaged citizens of our country. A low SMI asks: why should "prestige" any longer be affixed to an institution that openly pursues a self-aggrandizing climb through arbitrary "prestige" ranking schemes that even their own administrators openly and widely criticize? It is time for presidents and regents at low SMI institutions to read their mission statements more closely, get behind solving a critical national problem, and make policy changes that help justify the taxpayer support and exemptions they receive.

  • What should colleges and universities take away from their individual SMI rankings?

    The SMI should serve as a valuable mirror for policy, an instigator of conversations with institutions that are doing a better job, and a stimulant for policy change.

  • What should students and their families take away from the SMI rankings?

    If a student wants to pursue academics in an institution that models awareness and civic responsibility, the SMI can provide a valuable guide. In the end, the greatest returns to self from work, academic or otherwise, come from delivering benefits to family, nation, and our world. Families and students who understand this, and want to move up efficiently to a position of social and economic influence in our country will gravitate to high SMI schools.

  • How can the SMI rankings change higher education?

    The SMI rankings cannot by themselves change anything about higher education. But to the extent they provide a new barometer for policy and renewed attention to institutional civic responsibility, they can be part of improving both economic opportunity and social stability in our country.




Portland, Oregon Annual Social Mobility Summit

July 8-10, 2020