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How social mobility affected the 2019 U.S. News ranking

When the 2019 U.S. News school ranking came out, there were surprises all around. There have been some tremendous changes this year compared to the previous rankings. Most notably, UC Santa Barbra rose by 7 ranks, for #37 to #30. Clark University went from being ranked #81 last year to #66 this year, an increase by 15 places. UC Riverside saw perhaps one of the most significant change, going from #124 to #85 this year, a rise in 39 places. A lot of people wondered why this happened, so we here at Forward Pathway decided to explain some of the intricacies behind this change. Below we created a chart depicting the average change in school rankings within the past ten years. (Only the top 140 schools are included)

The calculation method we used was simple. We took all the place changes and divided them by the number of schools (140 in this case) to deduce the “average changes per school” on the list. As we can infer from the graph [1], from 2009 to 2019, 2019 saw the most significant change in rankings compared to its predecessors. Prior to this year’s ranking, the average school changes 2.5 places. However, this year that number has reached a record high of 6. I believe by now the readers are all wondering, what brought about this drastic change in rankings? The TL;DR version is this: U.S. News rankings this year utilized a new algorithm that included a new factor; social mobility. [2] This new calculation method is the culprit behind the madness.

So, let’s talk about social mobility for a second. Wikipedia defines social mobility as “the movement of individuals, families, households, or other categories of people within or between social strata in society.” [3] We most commonly calculate one’s social status based on the amount of wealth he or she might possess. In fact, when I previously wrote about the value of prestigious American universities, I also mentioned the issue of social mobility in the U.S.  As mentioned in Wikipedia, 43% of the children born into the bottom quintile or bottom 20% will remain there whereas 40% of the children born in the top quintile or 20% will remain in their social class. On the other hand, only 4% of the bottom quintile will rise to the top quintile whereas 8% of the top quintile will drop down to the bottom.

Now let’s take a look at how U.S. News calculated a schools ranking when factoring in social mobility. First, we have the percentage of Pell Grant recipients that graduate within six years. Then we have the ratio of Pell Grant recipients against all the total amount of students that graduate within six years. The graduation rate of Pell Grant students makes up for 2.5% of the scoring while the other 2.5% is composed of the ratio between the number of Pell Grant students and the total student population of the school. This 5% can only be earned through the enrollment of a certain number of students who qualify for Pell Grants, a major financial aid that students can apply for. (Generally, Pell Grants are only awarded to students in the bottom 40% of the social class)

After discovering this formula, I became skeptical since the graduation rate of a Pell Grant student does not reflect the school’s ability in promoting social mobility. Because in my personal and professional opinion, the graduating rate of a Pell Grant recipient does not determine whether that individual possess an upward social mobility ability. Nor does it reflect the school’s ability to promote social mobility overall. The other half is determined by the ratio of graduating Pell Grant recipients vs. the overall student population. If two schools possess the same Pell Grant recipient graduation rate, the school with the higher population of Pell Grant recipients will receive a higher scoring. I’ll let readers make their own conclusion on how fallible this formula is seeing how this new formula does not directly reflect a school’s ability to train a lower social class student in upward mobility.

So, in general, this year’s U.S. News social mobility scoring can only reflect the school’s willingness to recruit students from lower social classes as opposed to their ability in raising the social class of a student. Now, let’s take a look at the SUNY schools and the UC schools (public) when compared to most private schools. Because public schools are more likely to accept students from lower social classes, most of their rankings went up, whereas most private schools’ rankings went down. An interesting phenomenon occurred in the structure of the school name. University of XXXXX schools mostly went up whereas XXXXX University’s ranking would generally drop. (This can only be considered a general rule of thumb, seeing how all the Ivy League levels schools remain firm in their standing.)

I’m sure by now that most readers will have a question in mind. If public schools are on the rise in this new ranking, why does 19 of the top 20 spots still occupied by these private universities? The reasoning behind this is elementary. Let’s take Princeton University as an example. 72% of the students enrolled in Princeton University comes from families ranked within the top 20% of the social caste. Students that come from the bottom 20% however, only makes up for 2.2% of the student population. So, despite “normal” schools gaining the ability to increase their ranking score by a maximum of 5%, the chasm between them and the top 20 is still tremendous. This 5% change will have a greater impact on schools ranked lower, but as the rankings increase, its impact will become more and more negligible.

Down below is a chart published previously by Forward Pathway, it depicts the distribution of students based on their social class amongst various universities.

As you can infer from the graph, the majority of students from elite universities and colleges come from elite families within the social ladder. This results in the further solidification of rankings as you near the top. While I wholeheartedly agree with the intentions of U.S. News changing their formula to include social mobility, I do believe the execution phase could do with some adjustments. After all, promoting social mobility is one of the many responsibilities that American universities should shoulder. While U.S. News’ formula and action in placing a heavier emphasis on social mobility still need adjustment, its actions are definitely praiseworthy. I believe that U.S. News will definitely improve its rating system in the subsequent years to come. The attention to detail by U.S. News is very apparent, during my research, I found out that the statistics regarding the Pell Grant recipients is the complete, accurate, and relevant public data on the mobility of the American social class. Previous data such as The Quality of Opportunity Project [4] is severely lacking when compared alongside. It severely lacks continuity and relevance in the long scheme of things.

CollegeNet’s SMI Ranking’s data [5] factors in the student’s family and median graduating salary. However, the median used is the total student body as opposed to Pell Grant recipients. I believe that the usage of Pell Grant recipients as the basis for scoring is the most applicable. If further data regarding the graduate’s salary and family income can be added, the overall data will become much more infallible.

In Conclusion: the updated 2019 U.S. News ranking brought about many changes with the added consideration to social mobility. While the data does not present an accurate picture overall, to some extent, it has increased the schools’ need to place a heavier emphasis on lower class students. Overall, the new 2019 U.S. News school ranking definitely should be checked out, for more information, feel free to check it out at Forward Pathway’s website.



L. Lu, " Forward Pathway LLC, 2018. [Online]. Available:


"How U.S. News Calculated the 2019 Best Colleges Rankings," U.S. News, 2018. [Online]. Available:


"Social Mobility," [Online]. Available:


J. N. F. E. S. N. T. a. D. Y. Raj Chetty, "Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility," The Equality of Opportunity Project, 2018. [Online]. Available:


"2017 Social Mobility Index," CollegeNet, 2017. [Online]. Available:

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Company Name: Forward Pathway LLC
Contact Person: Lucas
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Country: United States

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