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Social Mobility Index Rates Colleges by a New Measure

What do universities in Montana, New Jersey and Florida have in common? They hold rankings one, two and three, respectively, in a new "social mobility" index that measures the impact an institution has on helping lower-income students enter careers that promise livable earnings.

The index is a project of CollegeNet, a company that provides Web-based services for higher ed, such as tuition processing and Web admissions, and PayScale, which provides online salary data and compensation software. Their new joint Web site, Social Mobility Index (SMI), gives a score to 539 institutions across the country based on five variables: tuition; the percentage of students whose families are below the United States median income; graduation rate; reported salary within five years of graduation; and school endowment. The first three variables have the highest weight; the last one the smallest weight.

As the companies explained in a statement, "The goal of the [index] 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."

"In its best form, U.S. education has served as an open gateway to economic opportunity for dedicated students. But over the past 30 years, as the prospect of college has turned into an expensive gamble for ordinary citizens, we have slipped from number three in college graduation rate to number 13 among developed nations. That doesn't cut it in an age where economic competitiveness depends upon skill development," noted Jim Wolfston, CEO of CollegeNET. "Fortunately, some colleges are getting it right; the SMI exists to highlight their contribution and example."

The first ranked school is Montana Tech of the University of Montana, a Butte university with a little more than 2,900 students. Montana Tech received a score of 71.51, based on a tuition rate of $6,464, 31 percent of students are classified as below the median income, a graduation rate of about 51 percent and a median early career salary of $68,400. Its endowment is a relatively modest $27 million.

"At Montana Tech, we call this the 'Ordinary to Extraordinary' story," said Chancellor Donald Blackketter. "We have a long tradition of graduating students, who come from ordinary circumstances and, in turn, use their Montana Tech education and personal commitment to make extraordinary contributions to the well-being of the nation and world."

Compare that scenario to Princeton University, named the best college in America in the U.S. News & World Report college ranking. Princeton is ranked 360 with an SMI score of 26.69. Its tuition is $40,170; a tenth of its students come in under the median income; and it has a graduation rate of 96 percent, a median early career salary of $60,000 and an endowment totaling nearly $17 billion.

"The SMI rankings clearly show that colleges and universities can be part of improving both economic opportunity and social stability in our country," observed Lydia Frank, editorial director at PayScale. "A school can most dramatically move itself upward in the SMI rankings by lowering its tuition or increasing its percentage of economically disadvantaged students — or both."

The other institutions that surface in the top 10 of the SMI rankings are:

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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