Valuable tool shows which colleges, universities help students move up

This column originally appeared in the Elk River Star News and several other APG of East Central Mn newspapers.

Valuable tool shows which colleges, universities help students move up

 An important free website can help students and families learn which public and private colleges and universities do the   best job of helping students move up economically. The Social Mobility Index also challenges many assumptions about the “best” colleges and universities.

The index uses five factors, including percentage of students at the institution from low-income families, percentage of low-to-moderate-income students who’ve moved into the top half of U.S. income within several years of graduation, and size of the institution’s endowment.

Let’s start with the 33 Minnesota four-year public and private colleges and universities. The Social Mobility Index shows that the most effective institutions are, in order, Metro State University, St. Cloud State University, Minnesota State, Mankato, University of Minnesota, Rochester, and Concordia University, St. Paul.

Surprised? I was. The rankings, both state by state and nationally, along with an explanation are here. I do wish that the rankings included two-year as well as four-year institutions.

Minnesota’s incoming Commissioner of Education Heather Mueller has earned two degrees from Minnesota State, Mankato. She told me: “I’m thankful that we have this wonderful option. I am proud to know that they are working hard to remove barriers and make college a real option for all students who wish to take that path.”

The Minnesota State System (formerly known as MnSCU) includes the top three Minnesota universities in this index. All of the system’s universities are in the top half of the rankings, Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra responded:

“The colleges and universities of Minnesota State serve more low income students than all of the other higher education options in Minnesota combined, and we are proud to offer these students a powerful pathway into the middle class or above. One reason that economic mobility is so important is that its impact tends to be intergenerational: students who are lifted out of poverty into the middle class or above bring their children with them, and this becomes the point from which their economic prospects begin.”

For years, U.S. News & World Report magazine has published widely read rankings based in part on how selective colleges are, how high entering students’ test scores are and what percentage of graduates contribute financially to the institution. Using these criteria, Carleton and Macalester rank highest.

However, they rank 32nd (Macalester) and 33rd (Carleton) in Minnesota and toward the bottom nationally on the Social Mobility Index. That’s in part because only 17.6% of Macalester students and 8.6% of Carleton students are from low-income families. Both colleges have endowments that are many, many times larger than the Minnesota colleges and universities that enroll higher, in most cases much higher, percentages of students from low-income families. As a Carleton grad, I’m disappointed and have conveyed that to their officials.

The Social Mobility Index was created by Jim Wolfston, a businessperson who is passionate about reducing historically high economic inequities in the United States. He believes the U.S. can’t thrive when there’s such a huge gap between the wealthiest families and most Americans.


Jim Wolfston (courtesy of Social Mobility Index

Wolfston told me that he’s “delighted by the number of colleges and universities that have contacted me to say they deeply appreciate this approach to ranking. Many have taken steps to improve their ranking using our criteria.” He urges policymakers to “support universities that are doing the most to educate all people, regardless of their background.”

Wolfston also agrees that helping graduates find good, well-paying jobs isn’t the only purpose for colleges and universities. However, he insists (and I agree) that producing a well-rounded person and helping someone develop skills and knowledge that lead to a good job are compatible.

When deciding where to go to college, students should consider many factors. But the Social Mobility Index provides very valuable information. I hope both students and postsecondary schools use it to reduce this country’s vast and growing economic disparities.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at