The Social Mobility Index, a new ranking of colleges, provides just the kind of measure officials at Bowling Green State University appreciate.
Unlike other rankings, there's no element of being a popularity contest.
The ranking by CollegeNET and PayCheck doesn't ask administrators to assess a college's prestige, and turns one factor seen as favorable by other rankings, the amount of a school's endowment, on its head.
The Social Mobility Index rates schools based on how well they help students improve their economic status.
The rankings place the greatest emphasis on tuition, the lower the better, and the number of low-income students enrolled, the higher the better.
The combination of factors puts BGSU at 53 on the list, the best of the Ohio schools ranked. Another Ohio school, Oberlin College, placed last of 539 in the survey.
"I think this epitomizes what BGSU has long been known for," said Joe Frizado, vice provost for academic operations and assessment. "This highlights the life opportunity a college degree can give someone. I'd suggest that BGSU has been for some time known as a place for first generation students, possibly from low income, where they're given an opportunity and they take advantage of it."
President Mary Ellen Mazey echoed those sentiments: "This is just another affirmation of BGSU's commitment to our students. As a first generation college student myself, I know how important it is to support them for success on campus and in their careers."
According to the study's statement of purpose at www.socialmobilityindex.org, the effort is aimed at pointing the way to decrease inequality in the United States and increase economic mobility. The study states: "If colleges can begin aggressively shifting policy towards increasing access to higher education, particularly for economically disadvantaged students and families, they will establish themselves as a key force for economic and social convergence."
But the opposite is occurring, the authors state. Instead, colleges are ranked based on "false prestige."
As CollegeNET states: "The SMI differs from most other rankings in that it focuses directly and broadly on the problem of economic mobility. To what extent does a college or university educate more economically disadvantaged people (family incomes below the national median) at lower tuition so that they graduate into good paying jobs? The colleges that do the best at this rank higher according to the SMI. Gone is any quixotic pretense of 'best' college based on arbitrary or irrelevant popularity criteria such as percentage of applicants denied."
So in the SMI ranking, Harvard comes in at 438. Princeton University, the top national university in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, placed 360. The top college according to CollegeNET? Montana Tech of the University of Montana.
The study looks at five factors. Beside tuition and percent of low-income students, determined by eligibility for federal grants, the study takes into account three other factors: graduation rate, median early career salaries of graduates, and size of endowment.
Graduate rate and salary are each given half the weight of tuition and low income enrollment because, the study explains, these require broader systemic changes. Given least weight is the size of the college's endowment. Still this is a factor because colleges with larger endowments should have greater resources to address the needs of low income students.
Most of this information is public, Frizado noted. CollegeNET did not ask BGSU for any information. The payroll information, he said, was derived by PayCheck.
That points to one of the weaknesses of the ratings - BGSU is the only one of the "corner schools" included. PayCheck, Frizado said, did not have enough data for Miami, Ohio University and Kent State to include those schools. He said he'd be interested in the comparison between those schools.
BGSU's numbers were: $10,726 for tuition; 31.39 percent of low income students; 60.4 percent graduation rate; $41,600 median early career salary; and $129.43 million endowment.
The University of Toledo placed 89th on the list. Its numbers were: $9,275 for tuition; 35.09 percent of low income students; 45.1 percent graduation rate; $45,500 median early career salary; and $310.91 million endowment.
Ohio State placed 134th on the list. Its numbers were: $10,037 for tuition; 13.21 percent of low income students; 62.9 percent graduation rate; $48,000 median early career salary; and $2.4 billion endowment (25th largest in the schools surveyed).
Oberlin's numbers are: $46,870 for tuition; 6.53 percent of low income students; 87.6 percent graduation rate; $40,200 median early career salary; and $674.59 million endowment.
Top-ranked Montana Tech's numbers are: $6,464 for tuition; 31.3 percent of low income students; 50.8 percent graduation rate; $68,400 median early career salary; and $27.38 million endowment.
Frizado noted that the early career salary number often reflects the mix of majors a school offers. Engineering schools fare particularly well in the rankings because of high starting salaries.
BGSU is not resting on its laurels. Initiatives such as the Learning Commons, which provides tutoring to students, and linked courses for freshmen, which help them adjust to college life, should all help to boost both retention and graduation rates, Frizado said.
And, the university is making a change in how it allocates scholarship money. While the BGSU Foundation has offered specific need based scholarships, the university has directed its scholarship money towards merit awards. Frizado said starting in 2015, the university will set aside some of its scholarship funds toward need-based grants.
Mazey has said that the new fundraising campaign now underway is geared in part to raise more money to help students afford college.