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Evaluating Colleges by Economic Mobility Upends Rankings

January 28, 2022

A new report from Third Way, a public policy think tank, evaluates colleges by ranking them on an economic mobility index, which looks at the return on investment for low-income students and the percentage of Pell Grant–eligible students that each institution enrolls.

The institutions that provide the greatest economic mobility for their students are Hispanic-serving Institutions in California, New York and Texas, according to the report. Historically Black colleges and universities also perform better using Third Way’s economic mobility index than on traditional rankings.

Colleges that typically perform well on traditional rankings—such as Duke University and Stanford University—also provide high returns on investment for low-income students because they enroll a relatively small number of high-achieving low-income students. But after factoring in the number of Pell Grant–eligible students enrolled at each institution, Duke falls from the top spot to No. 722. Stanford drops from second to No. 548.

“Beyond the overemphasis on institutional selectivity, other factors such as racial, economic, and educational discriminatory practices have also systemically undervalued the accomplishments of HBCUs across the US,” the report authors write. “However, when accounting for the proportion of low- and moderate-income students that colleges enroll and the outcomes those schools produce, HBCUs score much higher on the [economic mobility index] than traditional rankings reflect.”

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