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What colleges are best for poor families? The answers may surprise you

Published Oct. 17, 2015

Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, yada yada yada.

College rankings abound, with most fixating at the top on old school prestige and the same handful of well-worn, high-priced Ivy League universities clustered in the Northeast with a couple of other schools in the Midwest and California to offer some geographic diversity.

But here's a fresh ranking of more than 900 colleges and universities with a more compelling and contemporary message. These schools are ranked by how well they improve economic mobility and provide affordable education to disadvantaged families. Let's just say the Harvards, Yales and the usual "top" universities that try so hard to climb or at least preserve their positions on rankings put out by U.S. News & World Report, among others, are nowhere to be found among the best by this list's measures.

In this Social Mobility Index ranking, assembled by CollegeNet, the City University of New York's Bernard M. Baruch College is No. 1. It charges only $6,210 in tuition, it graduates 67 percent of its students, and its grads earn a median $50,700 in "early career" (meaning five years or less in their field) salary. In Florida, the highest-ranked school on this index is Florida A&M University (ranked 19th overall), which charges $5,785 in tuition, has a 40.9 percent graduation rate with its grads earnings a median $45,900 in early career salary.

In other words, families of limited means can send their kids to these schools, rack up little if any student debt and reasonably expect to prosper economically upon graduation. What a concept.

The Social Mobility Index ranking points out the value of state university educations, which provide far more bang for the buck than most private schools. To rise in traditional college rankings, schools must spend more per student and maintain low student-faculty ratios — expensive goals that typically force tuition costs to soar. The CollegeNet rankings feature schools with modest tuition that attract students from families with relatively low incomes. "Gone is any quixotic pretense of 'best' college based on any arbitrary or irrelevant popularity criteria such as percentage of applicants denied," CollegeNet says.

The index is a response to the growing lack of economic mobility in the United States, a well-documented problem that increasingly shows that people born in the lowest fifth of household income in this country are rarely able to rise above that quintile in adulthood. The rankings factor in tuition, student economic background, graduation rate, early career salary and university endowment. CollegeNet is a Portland, Ore., developer of Web technology for higher education and nonprofit institutions.

The cost of and access to higher education and the rising economic problems of student debt burdens have become a significant topic in the current presidential race.

So how did Princeton, Harvard and Yale — ranked 1, 2 and 3 by U.S. News — fare in the Social Mobility Index? Badly. Princeton landed at No. 769, Harvard at No. 875 and Yale at No. 855.

Even the Ivies can't be great at everything.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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