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On Rankings, 1911, and Economic Mobility

If you're alive today, you have lived your whole life with college rankings.  Yes, even you.  You may not have knows you were living in the time of college rankings, but indeed, you have been, unless you were born before 1911 (or maybe earlier.)  If you're interested, you can read this Twitter thread from 2020 where I discuss them and include snippets of those 1911 rankings as well as those from 1957, written by Chesley Manly.

You can read for yourself, or you can trust me, that in fact the rankings as we know them have been surprisingly consistent over time, and most people would have only minor quibbles with the ratings from 1911.  Perhaps that's because they have always tended to measure the same thing.

But what if we did different rankings?  No, not like the Princeton Review where they make an attempt to measure best party school, or best cafeteria food, or worst social life.  Something more quantifiable and concrete, although still, admittedly, a hard thing to get right: An economic mobility index.

Enter Michael Itzkowitz the former director of the College Scorecard.  He's taken loads of data and attempted to create that index, essentially to rank colleges by several important criteria:

  • How many low-income students they enroll and graduate
  • How affordable the college is (which is a combination of low cost and income, equating to "time to pay back" the investment
Like any ranking system, this is not perfect, nor is it precise.  And some might argue that the real benefit of college is not in money, even if you acknowledge that it's more important today than it ever was.  Further, much of it may be structural: Some states have low tuition, larger income disparity, and higher median incomes.  So, if nothing else, it might only be fair to compare colleges within a single state.  Still, this is intended to call out the ones that do it well, not, I think, look down your nose at the privates who, it might be argued, are free to not consider social mobility as a part of mission.

If you don't like it, you're perfectly free to create your own rankings, of course.

My Itzkowitz has has graciously explained the system and made the data available for down load here.  And he gave me permission to use it on the blog.

It's pretty simple: Dashboard 1 plots Low-income performance against economic mobility index (there is a strong correlation here because one factors into the calculation of the other.) Marks are colored by control, and the data are arrayed in quadrants, with the top right being the highest ranking institutions.

As always you can filter the data to show smaller groups; I've kept the axis and the quadrants fixed to give you some sense of the actual, rather than relative, positions.

The second view shows a bar chart with the mobility index, arrayed by region and state.

As always, let me know what you see here.


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