CollegeNET Releases the 2015 Social Mobility Index (SMI) for US Higher Education

Data-Driven Rankings Compare Colleges and Universities According to How Efficiently They Advance Low-Income Students Through Graduation Into Good Paying Careers
New Analysis Reveals That Pell Grant Counts Are a Poor Indicator of Access to a College Education, Given the Large Number of Awards to the Richest Half of the US Population

Portland, Or., October 13, 2015

CollegeNET, Inc., a leading provider of Web-based on-demand technologies for higher education, today released the 2015 Social Mobility Index (SMI), a data-driven ranking system that compares the extent to which US colleges and universities efficiently graduate students from low-income economic backgrounds into promising careers (socialmobilityindex.org).

The goal of the SMI—now in its second year—is to help refocus our higher education system away from the empty chasing of "prestige" and toward providing economic opportunity more broadly for our citizens.

According to Jim Wolfston, CEO of CollegeNET: "The past three decades for US higher education will be remembered as an expensive, mass capitulation to the notions of status, rank and marketing image promoted by entrepreneurial magazine hawkers. Along the way, the important agenda of ensuring accessibility, broadly developing human capital and protecting our nation's political position as a land of equal opportunity has been nearly decimated. Fortunately, a few extraordinary colleges have remained focused on the right issues, and the SMI highlights their civic contribution and example."

The 2015 SMI Rankings

The 2015 SMI ranks 931 colleges and universities according to how they advance economic mobility in the United States.

The top 10 SMI schools in 2015 are:

Concepts and Practices That Are Blocking Educational Access and Opportunity

Besides the costly chase for "prestige," there are a number of concepts and practices that are blocking colleges from innovating when it comes to wider educational access and opportunity.

The "Net Tuition" Smokescreen

One of them involves the concept of "net tuition." Each college arrives at its own net tuition average after it has applied a set of byzantine rules to allocate scholarships and financial aid to the need mix of an incoming class. Unfortunately, the real net tuition figure for any particular applicant, which is likely to be lower than published tuition prices, is unknowable to that student until he or she is accepted at a college. This means that disadvantaged students, relying on published tuition prices, are often "sticker shocked" from applying.

"If we're honest about improving access to college," explains Wolfston, "then we can't expect underprivileged kids to distill net tuition, or even know what that means, as they're considering applying to college. By focusing on gross tuition in our SMI rankings, we're calling for clarity up front as students wade through the complexity of today's college admission challenge. Right now, net price is blind price."

The Pell Grant "Fig Leaf"

A second factor getting in the way of expanded college access and opportunity is a widespread misunderstanding of how Pell Grants are being awarded. Intended for disadvantaged students with financial need, Pell Grants are increasingly being awarded to students who come from the richest half of our population. In fact, the 2015 SMI data analysis reveals that at least 50 percent of the Pell Grants at 20 colleges or universities are going to students from the upper half of our population.

Says Wolfston: "When the absolute number of Pell recipients is only a fraction of an admitted class and when many of those recipients are from the richest half of our population, this metric can no longer be a credible basis for assessing how well a college is providing educational access and opportunity. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned people, in the media and in higher education, have unquestioningly adopted this proxy."

An in-depth Web site devoted to the SMI rankings and methodology can be found at socialmobilityindex.org

Media Contact:
CollegeNET
Jill Thacker
jill@collegenet.com
503.973.5255

About CollegeNET, Inc.

CollegeNET, Inc. builds on-demand SaaS technologies that help institutions improve operational efficiency, enhance communication with constituents, and save money. The company's systems are used by 1,300 institutions worldwide for event and academic scheduling, prospect and admissions management, Web-based tuition processing, instructor and course evaluation, and alumni development. Additionally, the company operates CollegeNET.com, a fast-growing social network through which students create topics, write about them, and vote to determine who will win scholarships. CollegeNET.com has awarded more than $1.8 million in scholarships to date. The company is headquartered in Portland, Ore.

Notes on the 2015 SMI Methodology

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 break 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 the median family income. The data show that at many campuses over half of their Pell Grant recipients are from the richest half of our nation's population. Further, as reported by the US Department 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.

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.

Additional data provided by PayScale.com.

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