Social Mobility Index shows N.J. universities are serving underserved communities

State has 6 institutions in the Top 100 nationally, led by Rutgers-Newark (No. 21)

Seven schools in New Jersey placed in the Top 100 nationally on the most recent Social Mobility Index — a rating that measures the extent to which a college or university enrolls economically disadvantaged students (with family incomes below the national median) and helps them graduate into good-paying jobs.

Rutgers University-Newark was tops among the Jersey schools, coming in at No. 21 nationally. Montclair State University also made the Top 100, at No. 43, while Rutgers-Camden ranked No. 52. More than 1,000 schools were ranked.

The list, now in its seventh year, is produced by CollegeNet, a provider of web-based on-demand technologies for higher education.

Here’s a look at the New Jersey schools among the Top 250:

No. 250: Saint Elizabeth University;

No. 217: Saint Peter’s University;

No. 170: Rowan University;

No. 119: Stockton University;

No. 81: New Jersey Institute of Technology;

No. 76: William Paterson University;

No. 70: Kean University;

No. 69: New Jersey City University;

No. 52: Rutgers University-Camden;

No. 43: Montclair State University;

No. 21: Rutgers University-Newark.

Helping first-generation students — many of whom come from underserved communities — has long been a stated goal for all higher ed institutions. But it has taken on added significance and urgency in 2020, following demands for greater social equity in the wake of the death of George Floyd and how COVID-19 showed how people from poorer communities have been disproportionately impacted.

CollegeNet President Jim Wolfston said the index was founded on the principle that growing economic disparity in this country is the most pressing problem of our time. The Social Mobility Index, he said, seeks to redirect the attribution of “prestige” in higher education toward colleges that are advancing economic opportunity and social mobility.

“Administrators have a better chance to help strengthen U.S. economic mobility and the promise of the American dream if they can identify and learn from colleges that are skilled at doing this,” he said.

William Paterson University is doing just that. President Richard Helldobler said it is a point of emphasis and pride.

“Education is a means of social mobility and economic progress, and I am proud of our William Paterson students who recognize that a bachelor’s degree is one of our nation’s greatest income equalizers,” he said. “Our impressive ranking in the 2020 Social Mobility Index is all the more meaningful at this point in our nation’s history, as COVID-19 has disproportionately affected low-income and minority populations.”

And, while doing so is a noble aim, it can come at a cost. Students from underserved communities can take longer to graduate or leave the school without doing so — two factors that can hurt schools in other more prestigious rankings.

The two, however, are not mutually exclusive.

Fairleigh Dickinson University, which jumped into the Top 50 among regional universities in the North for the first time in the prestigious U.S. News & World Report rankings, did so while also attempting to serve a new generation of students.

President Chris Capuano said he’s thrilled to be able to show schools can do both — and that the payoff is huge.

“Our position is, we want to see more of these students from underrepresented communities go to college and succeed,” he said. “We feel it’s important for our state. We feel it’s important for the nation.”

CUNY-Baruch College was No. 1 on a list that was dominated — at the top — by California schools, which claimed 14 of the Top 20 spots. New York had five in the Top 20.