What is social mobility? It’s a term you hear quite often in 2022, particularly in the realm of American higher education. This blog will seek to answer that question in a clear and concise manner. We will then explain the role of colleges and universities in helping to create social mobility.

We also encourage you to visit our recently-released rankings assembled by the College Transitions team. Visit our Dataverse for current rankings of the Social Mobility Scores for 900+ colleges.

Social mobility definition

In essence, social mobility is the degree to which individuals can shift their social status. Technically, this can occur in an upward, downward, or even horizontal direction. However, for our purposes, we will hone in on upward social mobility. Upward mobility refers to an individual’s ability to enhance their social/economic status within their society. Some societies offer more upward social mobility than others. For example, India’s caste system greatly limits social mobility. On the other hand, many Scandinavian countries sit atop the global rankings for mobility by nation.

Sometimes these changes take place in one person’s lifetime. Other times, the change is inter-generational and unfolds over many decades.

What is the origin of the term?

The founder of Harvard University’s department of sociology, Pitirim Sorokin was the first scholar to flesh out the idea of social mobility. In 1959, he defined mobility as “any transition of an individual or social object or value – anything that has been created or modified by human activity – from one social position to another.”

One wonders how Sorokin would feel if he knew that, by 2022, Harvard would possess a 53 billion dollar endowment, but only place 157th among U.S. colleges in our Social Mobility Rank.

How college relates to social mobility

If upward social mobility is the ability to climb up the social ladder, it is fair to view higher education as the ladder itself. When evaluating a school, one wants to know how strong and tall that proverbial ladder is constructed. To get any kind of an accurate picture of how well a given college does at facilitating social mobility, one must examine a variety of data points.

How we calculated social mobility scores

You can read an expanded methodology on our Dataverse page, but simply put, we looked at 5 factors. Here are brief descriptions of each factor/measurement:

  1. Percent low-income (Pell) students: How many students from lower-income homes the school serves.
  2. Average net price: How much the college actually charges students (after merit and need-based aid)
  3. Median Early Career Earnings: Do the colleges adequately prepare students to land solid salaries?
  4. Delta Scores: In essence, this score measures the graduation rate for Pell students vs. non-Pell students. Does the college ultimately assist low-income students in completing their degrees?
  5. Ŷ Scores (IPEDS, derived): This figure is the result of a linear regression designed to get to the heart of a given school’s graduation rate for low-income students. It factors in institutional characteristics such as enrollment, endowment, admission rate, tuition, and control.

Which colleges do a great job at generating upward social mobility?

The American colleges receiving the highest Social Mobility Scores in our rankings were generally public universities. In fact five CUNY schools cracked the top 10 positions. They are:

  • CUNY Baruch College (1)
  • CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice (3)
  • CUNY Hunter College (4)
  • CUNY Lehman College (7)
  • CUNY City College (10)

The California State University system had 15 campuses enter the top 100 schools for social mobility. Interestingly, the highest-ranked school—Cal Poly San Luis Obispo—had the lowest ranking of the bunch (note that they still had an excellent score). The University of California system followed a similar pattern. All nine UC campuses scored fairly well. However, the top scorers were not the highest ranked schools like UCLA and Berkeley. Rather, UC Merced placed 16th overall and Riverside came in at #30.

Which colleges do a less-than-stellar job at facilitating social mobility?

Many schools in the bottom 10% of our Social Mobility Rankings are schools that churn out large numbers of graduates in the fields of art, design, and music. Graduates of these schools generally have lower earnings than their more traditionally-educated counterparts. You’ll note that even many top notch, highly-selective schools that specialize in these disciplines appear quite low on our list. These include:

  • The Juilliard School (898)
  • Savannah College of Art and Design (924)
  • Berklee College of Music (928)

Other school’s low ranking can be strongly attributed to a very low percentage of Pell-eligible students attending. This means that these schools do not educate a great number of individuals who are presently on the lower-end of the income ladder. Schools meeting this description include:

  • Oberlin College (922) – 9% Pell
  • Tulane University (912) – 11% Pell
  • High Point University (913) 11% Pell

How do the Ivy League colleges rank?

In general, the Ivies do a solid job of generating upward social mobility. All but two schools rank in the top 20% of the 930 schools we included.

  • Princeton (90)
  • Columbia (117)
  • Yale (118)
  • Harvard (157)
  • UPenn (158)
  • Dartmouth (187)
  • Cornell (252)
  • Brown (439)

Many other elite schools rank decently including:

  • MIT (59)
  • Caltech (71)
  • Stanford (79)

Colleges’ impact on social mobility – final thoughts

If a society truly strives to be a meritocracy where individuals can rise and fall on their own ability and hard work, it needs to have a strong system of higher education. Colleges that genuinely promote social mobility offer opportunity to those lower down on the income ladder. Through education, a student who grew up without economic means can earn a greater income than the generations before them.

Again, We also encourage you to visit our recently-released rankings assembled by the College Transitions’ Data Scientist, Adam Hearn. We hope this proves to be a useful tool in evaluating each institution’s commitment to the goal of upward mobility.