Less than two months after Cal State San Marcos President Ellen Neufeldt gave a speech to the community about her “audacious” goal for CSUSM to become a national leader in social mobility, a new study has ranked the North County university as No. 1 in the U.S.
On Friday, CollegeNET released its ninth annual Social Mobility Index report, and CSUSM placed first place among the more than 1,400 schools the index measures. Social mobility scores measure a university’s efforts to affordably educate and graduate economically disadvantaged students into good-paying jobs.
To produce its ranking, the Social Mobility Index rates four-year U.S. colleges and universities according to how they hold the line on tuition, enroll students from low-income backgrounds, graduate those students into good jobs, and apply their promotional messaging to solve our nation’s social mobility problem.
Over the past seven years, CSUSM has been in the top 5 percent of American universities in social mobility, but this is the first year it has come out on top. Seven other California State University schools were ranked in the top 20.
Although CSUSM officials have been working for years on becoming a leader in this area, the strategic plan laying out these goals wasn’t made fully public until Neufeldt spoke about it at her annual Report to the Community on Sept. 29 before a crowd of more than 350 people on campus. In a statement Friday, Neufeldt said she was thrilled that the university’s efforts have been recognized in this way.
“We’re building upon CSUSM’s reputation as an escalator of social mobility,” she said. “At a time when the value of higher education is being called into question, CSUSM stands out as a beacon of hope and opportunity. This recognition reflects the incredible work of our entire campus community to put our students and our region first in all that we do.”
The Social Mobility Index differs from most other rankings of colleges and universities in that it focuses directly on the factors that enable economic mobility.
The index traditionally has been computed from the variables of published tuition, the percentage of students whose families have incomes below $48,000 (slightly below the U.S. median), the graduation rate, the median salary graduates are earning approximately five years after graduation, and the size of the university’s endowment size. CollegeNET contrasts its rankings and the concept of social mobility in general with the annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report, which are grounded more in institutional prestige and wealth.
Since it opened in 1989, CSUSM has dedicated numerous programs to promote social mobility for its ethnically and socio-economically diverse regional population. About half of CSUSM students are underrepresented minorities and at least 52 percent of graduates are the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree. About 40 percent of students are Hispanic-Latinx, and there is a fast-growing number of American Indian students. Also, one in nine students is a military veteran, service member or military-affiliated dependent.
Neufeldt was hired in 2019 to lead CSUSM, after serving for nearly nine years at Old Dominion University in Virginia, where she cofounded a National Center for Social Mobility. Since then, social mobility has become even more woven into CSUSM’s mission, particularly as a pillar of the university’s five-year strategic plan.
During her presentation in September, Neufeldt said many more efforts are underway to expand and CSUSM’s social mobility efforts. In May, the university received a $1 million gift from longtime donors Steve and Laura Wagner to create a fund devoted to social mobility, and in June it hosted the two-day National Social Mobility Symposium, which was emceed by the chair of the CSU Board of Trustees.
“I look forward to continuing our efforts to be a national model in the area of student success and social mobility — building on the important work already in place and taking it to new heights through innovation, collaboration and inclusion,” Neufeldt said, in her statement.
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