Comments on the CollegeNET-PayScale Social Mobility Index

The last two years have seen a great deal of attention being placed on the social mobility function that many people expect colleges to perform. Are colleges giving students from lower-income families the tools and skills they need in order to do well (and good) in society? The Washington Monthly college rankings (which I calculate) were the first entrant in this field nearly a decade ago, and we also put out lists of the Best Bang for the Buck and Affordable Elite colleges in this year’s issue. The New York Times put out a social mobility ranking in September, which essentially was a more elite version of our Affordable Elite list, which looked at only about 100 colleges with a 75% four-year graduation rate.

The newest entity in the cottage industry of social mobility rankings comes from PayScale and CollegeNET, an information technology and scholarship provider. Their Social Mobility Index (SMI) includes five components for 539 four-year colleges, with the following weights:

Tuition (lower is better): 126 points

Economic background (percent of students with family incomes below $48,000): 125 points

Graduation rate (apparently six years): 66 points

Early career salary (from PayScale data): 65 points

Endowment (lower is better): 30 points

The top five colleges in the rankings are Montana Tech, Rowan , Florida A&M, Cal Poly-Ponoma, and Cal State-Northridge, while the bottom five are Oberlin, Colby, Berklee College of music, Washington University, and the Culinary Institute of America.

Many people will critique the use of PayScale’s data in rankings, and I would partially agree—although it’s the best data that is available nationwide at this point until the ban on unit record data is eliminated. My two main critiques of these rankings are the following:

Tuition isn’t the best measure of college affordability. Judging by the numbers used in the rankings, it’s clear that the SMI uses posted tuition and fees for affordability. This doesn’t necessarily reflect what the typical lower-income student would actually pay for two reasons, as it excludes room, board, and other necessary expenses while also excluding any grant aid. The net price of attendance (the total cost of attendance less all grant aid) is a far better measure of what students from lower-income families may pay, even though the SMI measure does capture sticker shock.

The weights are justified, but still arbitrary. The SMI methodology includes the following howler of a sentence:

“Unlike the popular periodicals, we did not arbitrarily assign a percentage weight to the five variables in the SMI formula and add those values together to obtain a score.”

Not to put my philosopher hat on too tightly, but any weights given in college rankings are arbitrarily assigned. A good set of rankings is fairly insensitive to changes in the weighting methodology, while the SMI does not answer that question.

I’m pleased to welcome another college rankings website to this increasingly fascinating mix of providers—and I remain curious the extent to which these rankings (along with many others) will be used as either an accountability or a consumer information tool.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.