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’s 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.”
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.)
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.