By Kelly Rifelj, Research Assistant
The loudest voices in college rankings conversations, like the US News and World Report best-of list, continually emphasize prestigious well-endowed institutions. Selective institutions draw on their reputation to attract students who are already high achievers and are often relatively well-resourced. Too often, however, these schools enroll few students who have been historically excluded from higher education—or don’t serve them well.
Standard college rankings don’t often directly acknowledge institutions that intentionally and successfully serve students from communities that have experienced significant underinvestment and systemic oppression. If institutions of higher education are to be engines of change to counteract these dynamics, understanding and measuring which institutions are facilitating for students the skills, resources, and credentials that provide stable, family-supporting incomes to students is important. To date, this type of outcome-based focus has been lacking in traditional evaluations of institutions.
In response, leading thinkers in the field of higher education are building a new rating system that showcases the ability of institutions to propel low-income students into spheres of higher economic security—in short, moving from valuing institutional selectivity above towards measuring and prioritizing student mobility.
“If the goal is to increase and catalyze economic mobility for students, then we need to elevate schools that are actually succeeding — and push all colleges in higher education to do the same.” Nicole Siegel, Deputy Director of Education at Third Way
Third Way and Excelencia in Education recently co-hosted a conversation on the critical role Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) play in getting Latino students across the finish line of graduation and towards economic mobility and security. The webinar brought in speakers from three schools who have a very strong track record of supporting Latino students: Dr. Fernando Delgado, President of CUNY Lehman College; Dr. Alam Hasson, Interim Vice Provost at Fresno State University; and Dr. Magdalena Hinojosa, Sr. VP of Strategic Enrollment & Student Affairs at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
When Third Way was founded in 2015, its founders were determined to drive the narrative of what makes a successful institution away from selectivity to a wider array of student outcomes—outcomes that would measure how well colleges were supporting students to move into greater economic security. They wanted to figure out which schools were providing the best return on investment (ROI) under a new paradigm, especially for students who come from historically excluded communities. Third Way’s initial attempt to accurately measure the ROI was called the Price-to-Earnings Premium (PEP) or the amount of time it takes to pay down college costs. After the college costs are taken care of, the additional income is the return on a student’s investment. PEP is calculated as: Total Average Net Price / (Post-Enrollment Earnings – Typical Salary of a High School Graduate) = Number of Years to Recoup Net Cost, based on the earnings they could expect from completing that program. PEP can be used to get a sense of the amount of time it usually takes to recoup the cost of obtaining a credential at a particular school.
However, the highest ranked schools using PEP were often small and didn’t admit many low-income students. Even after re-analyzing the data for only low-income students, when they reviewed the top schools, selective, prestigious schools still dominated the top ten. As Lanae Erickson, Senior Vice President for Social Policy, Education & Politics at Third Way explained, “private selective schools had good outcomes for some, but really lousy outcomes for the student populations that have been historically underserved.” Moreover, those top 10 schools combined only enrolled about 15,000 Pell recipients. Given these low numbers of students, Third Way began to question how much mobility these institutions were actually providing.
Continuing to push their thinking forward to measure which institutions are providing the most mobility to the highest number of students, Third Way multiplied the PEP by the proportion of Pell recipients at a school. They called this new metric the Economic Mobility Index (EMI), a new rating system that assesses which colleges help students climb the economic ladder of success. When using this metric, the new rankings show the top ten schools were all HSIs and combined enrolled about 100,000 students. Many were public schools in the CUNY or University of California systems. These are public institutions that are not ranked highly in performance-based funding or in college rankings, but do serve large populations of hispanic and latino students and do, in fact, create economic mobility and security for this current generation of students.
HOW THEY DO IT:
Focus on the local service area:
- Leverage more resources by meeting regularly with local legislators. The success of local colleges is tied to elected officials’ success as well.
Let alumni tell their stories for greater impact:
- Third party validation lets potential students know how your institution can support their economic mobility.
- Echo those stories to amplify this effect and push other institutions to make change.
Move out of silos:
- There should be communication and convergence of financial support (e.g., tuition and mandatory fees) and student support services (e.g., mental health, housing, internships).
Set supports for students as a priority:
- For example: knowing students employed on campus are 8 times more likely to graduate, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley evaluated their budget and raised the minimum wage at the college to $12/hour.
Deliver on a social contract with students:
- Find students from across the experience spectrum and listen to their stories about what they’ve experienced and what they need.
- Get students to and through to graduation by building opportunities and supports on campus.
Measure what you value:
- Look at metrics of success beyond graduation, such as enrollment, retention, transfer rates, diversity of representation in teacher staff (in other words,not just the graduation rate).