The Eighth Annual Social Mobility Index (SMI) Highlights Schools Fighting Against Growing Economic Disparity as Covid-19 Blocks Many Low-Income Students from Pursuing College

Portland, Or., November 17, 2021

CollegeNET, Inc., a leading provider of web-based on-demand technologies for higher education, today released the 2021 Social Mobility Index (SMI). The SMI benchmarks four-year U.S. colleges and universities according to how effectively they enroll students from low-income backgrounds and graduate them into good-paying jobs. The 2021 SMI includes 1,549 four-year institutions.

The Top 20 SMI Schools for 2021

  • CUNY Bernard M. Baruch College
  • California State University, Los Angeles
  • California State University, Long Beach
  • Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science
  • California State University, Fresno
  • California State University, San Bernardino
  • California State University, Northridge
  • California State University, Dominguez Hills
  • CUNY Brooklyn College
  • CUNY Lehman College
  • Texas A & M International University
  • CUNY Hunter College
  • California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
  • CUNY Queens College
  • California State University, Channel Islands
  • Rutgers University, Newark
  • CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice
  • CUNY City College
  • California State University, Fullerton
  • California State University, Bakersfield

The 2021 SMI is released while Covid-19 continues to disproportionately impact low-income students, forcing many to abandon, delay or alter their pursuit of a college degree and the potential that degree provides for social mobility.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education noted, “The educational gaps that existed before the pandemic—in access, opportunities, achievement, and outcomes—are widening. And we can see already that many of these impacts are falling disproportionately on students who went into the pandemic with the greatest educational needs and fewest opportunities—many of them from historically marginalized and underserved groups.”

Notable Schools Advancing Social Mobility During the Pandemic

The CUNY system in New York City placed seven schools in the 2021 SMI Top 20, including Baruch College, which continues to hold its #1 ranking for the seventh consecutive year.

As in 2020, the California State University (CSU) system also dominates the 2021 SMI rankings, accounting for 10 of the Top 20 spots this year. Three CSU schools (California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; California State University, Fresno; and California State University, Long Beach) have ranked in the SMI Top 20 for eight consecutive years.

Other noteworthy schools gaining ground in their social mobility efforts despite the lingering Covid-19 pandemic include:

Winston-Salem State University, in North Carolina, (Top 30 ranking for seven of the past eight years); Rutgers University — Newark (#16 ranking in 2021); Old Dominion University (Top 10 percent ranking in 2021); New Mexico State University (Top 15 percent ranking in 2021); University of California, Santa Cruz (Top 15 percent ranking in 2021); University of California, Irvine (Top 5 percent ranking in 2021); University of Nevada, Las Vegas (Top 15 percent ranking in 2021); and Portland State University (Top 10 percent ranking in 2021).

Schools Reflect on the Lessons of Covid-19

For institutions such as Wichita State University, where 22 percent of students are from traditionally low-income households, the pandemic has underscored the need to support their most vulnerable populations.

“Even before the pandemic hit, Wichita State University prioritized making education accessible and affordable to underrepresented populations,” said Dr. Rick Muma, president of Wichita State University. “We know that higher education is a means to boost prosperity and increase socioeconomic status. The health and financial distress that arose from COVID-19 underlined systemic and socioeconomic disparities, many of which could be lessened or eliminated through education.” According to Dr. Muma, “Our priority during the pandemic was keeping our students above water — financially, mentally, and academically; so we immediately mobilized to connect with students, using HEERF money to meet the needs of our most vulnerable populations and giving them the tools they need to complete their educational and career goals.”

Schools that improved their SMI ranking over last year are applying strategies that keep their most vulnerable students in school and on track despite the pandemic.

At New Mexico State University, which moved up to the top 15 percent on the 2021 SMI, Tony Marin, Assistant Vice-President for Student Affairs, said, “The pandemic proved to be challenging as the Digital Divide exposed the technology needs of our student body. As New Mexico's Land Grant Institution, our presence in every county in the state through our cooperative extension offices provided access to the Internet so students could complete their courses online. Our equipment rental program proved to be an affordable option for our students to have the computer hardware to continue on the path toward degree completion. The University also distributed iPad bundles to every incoming freshman. Further, programs such as the Aggie Accelerate Program provided incoming freshmen opportunities to strengthen their math and English skills in preparation for the fall semester. New Mexico State University continues to make strides towards ensuring that we fulfill our mission to the citizenry of New Mexico by working towards greater social mobility of our students."

Redefining the Notion of Prestige in Higher Education

The SMI was founded on the principle that growing disparity in economic opportunity is the most pressing problem of our time and that higher education is in the strongest position to address it. The SMI seeks to redirect the attribution of "prestige" away from colleges that are merely wealthy toward those that are advancing US economic opportunity and social mobility.

“Unlike other college rankings that celebrate wealth and its proxies,” says CollegeNET President Jim Wolfston, “the SMI helps families and policymakers determine which colleges are addressing the national problem of economic mobility. Administrators have a better chance to help strengthen US economic mobility and the promise of the American Dream if they can identify and learn from colleges that are skilled at doing this.”

“Given that the US is now the least economically mobile among developed nations,” says Wolfston, “it is irresponsible to say an education institution is ‘better’ because it has a huge endowment, or because it admits students with higher SAT/ACT scores — which are most tightly correlated to family income. It is irresponsible to say an institution is ‘better’ because it drives up admissions application counts, turns away more students and then boasts about its ‘selectivity.’ In today’s world, where the American Dream is increasingly threatened, real prestige must accord to universities that educate and advance all motivated students, regardless of their economic background. This is the revolution in mission and values that the Social Mobility Index seeks to advance.”

Higher Education’s Vital Role in the Learning Age

“Higher Education is the most important asset in the Learning Age,” Wolfston explained in his keynote address at Old Dominion University’s Social Mobility Symposium. “If we can distribute this vital asset across the economic spectrum, we can optimize our nation’s human capital development, prepare the next generation for citizenship and ensure social and economic opportunity. Most importantly, by rejecting the current trend toward on-campus economic homogeneity, a higher education institution can offer its students the chance to encounter a more challenging mix of people with diverse ideas, perspectives and backgrounds. Collisions with the unexpected and unfamiliar are what best sharpen and prepare innovative minds. Thus, economic inclusion is not only a solution to a social justice issue, but also an optimizing strategy for training tomorrow’s innovators.”

Programs That Acknowledge Institutional Excellence

CollegeNET recognizes schools that are advancing social mobility through various programs. CollegeNET presents the Social Mobility Innovator Awards to student success leaders from US colleges and universities at the Social Mobility Summit — a forum on economic inclusion and best practices for student success held in Portland, Oregon. CollegeNET has also published an e-book that describes best practices from student success professionals who are pioneering innovative programs that support under-served and underrepresented students’ academic, personal and financial needs. Further, CollegeNET sponsors regional conferences to debate and discuss social mobility issues. On-campus events have been held at the University of California, Irvine; the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of California, San Diego; Wichita State University; and Winston-Salem State University.

CollegeNET is the producer of the new documentary film, RIGGED. The full-length feature explains how the long prevailing Wealthist value system in U.S. higher education limits opportunity and upward mobility and thus undermines U.S. democracy. RIGGED builds on the historical premise that growing economic imbalance ultimately leads to social unrest, political upheaval, and war. Through interviews with authors, historians, educators, and students, RIGGED shows how the value system underlying U.S. higher education constitutes a major risk factor for triggering these historic consequences and how this value system can be changed. Since its release in April, RIGGED has been awarded Best Documentary Feature at three festivals: Toronto Magazine Film Festival, the Mindfield Film Festival, and the World Premiere Film Awards. RIGGED has also been selected for nine upcoming regional and international film festivals and nominated for Best Documentary at the New Vision International Film Festival in Amsterdam. RIGGED is currently streaming on iTunes, Apple TV, Vudu, and Google Play.

Read more about the SMI here.

Media Contact:
Jill Thacker