The Top U.S. Colleges for Delivering Social Mobility


Four of the top five colleges for delivering upward mobility for low-income students in the U.S. are in California, according to the Wall Street Journal/College Pulse college rankings.

Colleges at the top of our social-mobility ranking are those that perform well on both graduation and salary metrics while taking in high proportions of low-income students. 

California State University – Los Angeles tops the social-mobility ranking, followed by the University of California – Merced and Berea College, a small private college in Kentucky.  Fresno Pacific University and California State University – Northridge round out the top five.

Jim Tsoukalas, who graduated from California State University – Los Angeles this year, says flexible teachers and helpful counselors kept him on track to graduate with a degree in business administration. And, he says, the price was right: “I didn’t want to go too deep into debt, so Cal State was a viable option for me.”


Student outcomes are core to the new WSJ/College Pulse rankings, with particular emphasis placed on graduation rates and salaries in the years after graduation. 

The social-mobility ranking further considers the proportion of students who receive Pell Grants at each college, rewarding colleges that take in a high number of students from lower family incomes.  Pell Grants are federal education grants earmarked for students who have exceptional financial need. 

The result is a measure of which schools are excelling at getting students to graduate and bumping up their salaries in the years after graduation, while also being accessible to students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

This is the first time the Journal, working with research partner Statista, has devised a ranking of U.S. colleges contributing the most to social mobility.  The analysis for the new ranking used research on economic mobility by the Third Way policy-research think tank as a guide.

Top Colleges for Social Mobility

The social-mobility ranking considers graduation rates and salaries in the years after graduation, as well as the proportion of students who receive Pell Grants.

Source: WSJ/College Pulse 2024 Best Colleges in the U.S. ranking

Nearly one-third of the California State University system’s roughly 460,000 undergraduates are the first in their family to attend college, and more than half of CSU students are from traditionally underrepresented communities, according to a spokeswoman. About half of all CSU undergraduates receive Pell Grants.

“The mission of the California State University system and its focus on broad access and student success explains, in part, why it is so well represented in the social-mobility rankings,” says Jennifer Baszile, the system’s associate vice chancellor of student success and inclusive excellence. “Socioeconomic mobility and student outcomes are critical to the mission of the work that we do.”

Both the California State University system and the University of California system are public and receive state funding. Berea, Fresno Pacific, the University of La Verne and Albion College were among just a handful of private schools near the top of our social-mobility ranking. 

At Berea, students don’t pay tuition. The school’s net price for the 2020-21 academic year was $3,442, the third lowest of any school in the rankings. Net price is the average overall cost of attending college for students who receive federal financial aid, including tuition and fees, room and board, and books and supplies, taking into account any grants and scholarships.

Kentucky has one of the country’s lowest median household incomes, and nearly all domestic students at Berea receive Pell Grants. 

The school provides financial resources for students to travel to job interviews, even out of state. It provides grants to help cover travel and living expenses for students who take unpaid internships. 

Berea’s “Dress for Success” program, a partnership with Macy’s, provides students with $400 each to buy professional clothing. Berea students say the program is an important financial resource and helps build confidence for interviews, internships, and future careers.

“They raise us up and give us equal footing so that we have the opportunity to go out and find good salaries and make money,” says Tristan Tillery, a senior majoring in history. 

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