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There is a commonly shared belief in the United States that going to college will improve a student’s quality of life upon graduation—that the graduate will certainly earn more money and perhaps even live ’better’ than their parents or grandparents before them.

And this belief honestly makes sense, given so much of the history and mission of higher education in this country! But while for many college attendance is a stop on the path to achieving the American Dream, certain colleges and universities do a much better job than others at improving life (or social mobility, as academics would call it) for their students.

Which schools fall into this group might surprise you! You might think the most well-resourced or prestigious colleges would be in the best position to better lives—but the problem is that they don’t typically admit large numbers of students with a lot of room for social mobility. In work done by Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Opportunity Insights, researchers found that “children with parents in the top one percent [of the income distribution] are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy-Plus college [Ivy League colleges, University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT, and Duke] than children with parents in the bottom 20 percent.” So, which schools are really helping students from either underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds dramatically increase their social mobility? Here is a geographically diverse sampling:

  • City College of New York: CCNY was the first college in the City University of New York system and has always been renowned for increasing access to high-quality education and engendering social change. About 56% of CCNY students come from low-income families; more than 50% of CCNY students will move up two or more income quintiles after graduating.
  • California State University, Los Angeles: Located in downtown Los Angeles, this Cal State campus is a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution, Minority-Serving Institution, and Asian American- and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution. It is well-known for its programs in service to its community, and especially recognized for its engineering and business majors. At Cal State LA 64.5% of all students come from low-income families; 47% of their graduates will move up two or more income quintiles by age 35.
  • Texas A&M International University: This Laredo-based branch of the Texas A&M system is home to a diverse range of well-regarded programs, including communication disorders, criminal justice, kinesiology, education, and mathematics. A Hispanic-Serving Institution, TAMIU is also home to 11 NCAA Division III sports teams. Sixty-three percent of freshmen are Pell-eligible.
  • Florida International University: Ideal for a student seeking a big campus in an urban setting, Miami’s FIU is home to a multi-cultural student body. Business, management, and marketing are the most popular majors, but you’ll also find many students studying psychology, biology, and communications. Graduates can expect an average debt of only $18,000.
  • University of North Carolina, Pembroke: One of the most notable things about this branch of the UNC public university system is that American Indians represent about 15 percent of the student population. The campus hosts an American Indian Studies major, as well as The Museum of the Southeast American Indian. For in-state students, tuition runs to just over $7,000 per year.
  • Metropolitan State University: Offering everything from certificates to doctoral degrees to just under 7,000 undergraduates, St. Paul, Minnesota’s MSU provides an intimate learning experience. Nursing and business are by far the most popular majors at this campus that champions adult learners and non-traditional students seeking an education to enrich their job and earning opportunities.

If you want to learn more, there are two highly respected data resources considering social and economic mobility:

  • CollegeNet’s Social Mobility Index is the more wonk-ish of the two resources. When you enter the site, you’ll be greeted with a long, academic and math-laden description of how the researchers came to create their ranking system. Know that the SMI is meant to “measure the extent to which a college or university educates more economically disadvantaged students (with family incomes below the national median) at lower tuition and graduates them into good-paying jobs…Simply put, a school can most dramatically move upwards in the SMI rankings by lowering its tuition or increasing its percentage of economically disadvantaged students (or both).” When you do eventually scroll through the explanatory text, you will find the SMI rankings. It’s easy to search for a particular institution using the search bar. The basic data shared in the ranking table is really interesting and includes metrics like average debt, percent of low-income students, tuition rates, and median early-career salary.
  • Opportunity Insight’s Mobility Report Cards are hosted by the New York Times’ The Upshot project. This site is much more interactive and fun to dive into. Aside from perusing their “Top Ten” lists for social mobility and access, users can also type in the name of an institution to learn more about its economic diversity, economic mobility, segregation, and outcomes. Users can learn how alumni from that institution fare later in life in terms of average earnings and marital status, as well as how the institution compares with its peer schools and to the larger national landscape. It is particularly interesting to scroll all the way to the bottom of an institutional Mobility Report Card to see how access to the institution has changed over time—is this a school that’s working to increase access, or is it stagnant (or worse, declining)?


Bright Horizons College Coach® is the nation’s leader in educational advising. We help students and families across the country navigate the path to college, with a team of experts—all former admissions and financial aid decision-makers at top schools—who know the process from the inside. Collectively, we’ve helped more than 32,000 families successfully manage every aspect of college admissions, from choosing schools, to creating stand-out applications, to economically saving, and financing it all. Visit the Bright Horizons website.