Flaws in Mobility Rankings

June 24, 2020

Economic mobility metrics and rankings should be taken with a grain of salt, according to a new report from the American Enterprise Institute.

The report looks at the mobility rankings created by Opportunity Insights, a project led by Raj Chetty, an economist from Harvard University. Using an analysis method created by Sarah Turner and Caroline Hoxby, the report assessed how much geography impacts where institutions land on the mobility rankings.

It found that the greater the income disparity is in a state, the more likely it is an institution in that state will have a high mobility rate. Of the top 100 colleges on Opportunity Insights' rankings, 85 are in the 10 states with the highest level of income inequality. Those 10 states only hold 35 percent of all colleges nationally. California, New York and Texas are especially overrepresented in the rankings, with 75 of the top 100 institutions coming from those three states.

The 31 states that make up the three lowest quintiles for income inequality have only four institutions from the top-100 ranking.

The report also takes issue with the decision to group some university systems together in the Opportunity Insights data. The report uses the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a flagship campus, as an example, because it has a high graduation rate and median starting incomes for former students range from $17,000 to $92,000. In comparison, the University of Illinois at Springfield has a lower graduation rate and a smaller median starting income range.

Finally, the report notes that even slight changes to the definition of mobility can drastically alter the mobility rates of an institution. Opportunity Insights measures mobility as the number of students who move from the lowest income quintile to the top income quintile. Other researchers have broadened that definition to include the bottom two and top two income quintiles. Using that definition, New York University would drop from number 95 in Chetty's ranking to somewhere outside the top 500.

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