Colleges that enroll fewer Pell Grant recipients contribute less toward social mobility, a report by Education Reform Now found, a think tank that advocates for the public education system.

Pell Grants are subsidies paid by the US government to cash-strapped students so they can get college degrees. Students receiving these grants come from families whose gross annual incomes are less than $50,000.

Colleges and universities that enroll Pell Grant recipients ensure that low-income students can further their post-secondary education and are well-equipped to land jobs after graduation. These institutions, therefore, make a meaningful commitment to social mobility — they are what Education Reform Now calls “social mobility elevators.”

What is the Social Mobility Impact Ranking?

The social mobility impact ranking, as compiled by Education Reform Now, is based upon how frequently universities graduate economically disadvantaged students who received Pell Grants. 

While the study identified schools that enrolled hundreds of Pell Grant recipients annually and therefore were superior “social mobility elevators,” it also revealed hundreds of institutions — many of them elite and highly-prestigious — that need to enroll more low-income students if they are to increase socioeconomic diversity on campus.

The social mobility impact analysis methodology involved “multiplying the average headcount of students with Pell Grants by the average Pell Grant student share and average Pell Grant graduation rate,” Education Reform Now senior policy analyst James Murphy explained.

What Does the Social Mobility Impact Ranking Indicate? 

To be social mobility elevators, enrolling Pell Grant recipients is not enough. Schools must provide academic and other necessary student services to low-income students so that they do remain in the same economic circumstances despite having earned a college degree.

Lack of adequate support and access to earning a college degree is the reason why only 20 percent of Pell Grant recipients go on to finish their education. For example, Liberty University alone enrolls around 20,000 undergraduates annually who receive Pell Grants but only 37 percent of them go on to earn a degree.

Public universities fared best in the impact ranking. These universities occupy 90 of the top 100 spots because they enroll and graduate large numbers of low-income students every year, affording them the opportunity to move up the socioeconomic ladder.

Although the elite colleges are potentially powerful social mobility elevators, their social mobility impact is actually rather limited. Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Dartmouth, and Brown have less to no impact on the lives of socioeconomically disadvantaged students due to small class sizes and low enrollment of students with Pell Grants, when in fact Pell Grant receivers would benefit the most by attending these schools.

“These highly selective universities play an outsized role in politics, finance, science, and medicine, so it is essential that they increase socioeconomic and racial diversity,” the report said.

That said, universities like UCLA and USC that ranked 13 and 74 respectively proved how some highly-selective universities can lift low-income students into the middle class.