Rear view of large group of students raising arms during a class at amphitheater.
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Over the last few years, we at the Washington Monthly have been thrilled to see growing public attention paid to colleges’ roles in fostering upward social mobility among their students. Most notably, even our friends at U.S. News & World Report, long purveyors of a prestige-centric standard of excellence, have slowly begun to introduce measurements of social mobility into their rankings. Still, those metrics take a back seat to reputational surveys and how much money a college has. We prefer to do things differently. 

This is our eighth year of producing a ranking of “best bang for the buck” colleges, which is laser focused on showing which colleges do a good job promoting social mobility—and which don’t. We made a few tweaks to this year’s lists. One was switching from the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants to the number of Pell recipients who earned bachelor’s degrees. We did this to reward colleges that provide access to higher education to more of the low-income Americans who need it—and to give a nudge to the selective institutions that do a great job for the low-income students they admit, but who should be making room for far more of them. Another change was to take a state’s income distribution into account in some of our measures to adjust for economic factors beyond a college’s control. (A college in a state with lower poverty rates doesn’t necessarily deserve to be penalized relative to one in a high-poverty state.) The rankings are broken down by region. (We used the same data and methodology to create the social mobility portion of the main rankings.) 

The best bang for the buck colleges across each of the five regions are a mix of some of America’s most elite institutions and hidden gems that make up for a lack of name recognition with strong student outcomes and a commitment to upward mobility. In the Northeast, the City University of New York’s Baruch College and Bentley University in Massachusetts join Harvard and Yale in the top four. Baruch has more than twice the share of first-generation students as the other top colleges while charging a net price of just $4,128—$9 less than super-wealthy Harvard.

In the South and Midwest, Berea College and College of the Ozarks maintain their strangleholds on the top spots thanks to their economic diversity, relatively strong graduation rates, and commitment to meeting students’ financial need. Texas public universities occupy six spots in the top twelve thanks to providing affordable degrees and successfully graduating large numbers of Pell recipients. 

In the Southeast, Georgetown and Washington and Lee take the top two spots, reflecting the fact that they serve their lower-income students exceptionally well. But combined, they only graduated 279 Pell recipients last year—or less than one-fourth the number that fourteenth-ranked Florida International University graduated. Georgia’s Augusta University, where 41 percent of students receive Pell Grants, is number three in the Southeast and a great option for students who want more socioeconomic diversity than is found at the top two schools. 

Finally, in the West, the California State University system continues to dominate. While Brigham Young and Stanford top the list, twelve Cal State campuses appear in the top thirty of the West rankings. Fully 60 percent of students at fifth-ranked Cal State–Los Angeles are the first in their families to attend college, one of the highest rates in the country. Cal State deserves credit for showing a commitment to upward mobility across the system and the state.

Toward the bottom of those rankings, we find a mix of middling public and private nonprofit colleges along with a number of for-profit college chains. We railed against High Point University last year for its incredibly high net price and fancy amenities, but they get a partial pass this year for donating $1 million to Bennett College to help it stay open amid financial troubles. High Point is last in the Southeast this year (Bennett is 102nd), but they deserve kudos for helping out a higher-performing college. Once again, Baylor, Hofstra, Tulane, and Tulsa deserve raspberries for finishing near the bottom of the rankings in spite of having national reputations and sizable endowments. They can do better.

Robert Kelchen

Robert Kelchen, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is data manager of the Washington Monthly College Guide.