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Return on investment at Connecticut colleges and universities falling short, new report finds

CT Mirror

Most of Connecticut’s colleges and universities rank below average in how well they serve low-income students, according to a new report from policy research group Third Way.

In a state that touts the quality of its educational institutions, the report shows return on investment in education for many students is falling short.

The Washington, D.C.-based think tank created its “economic mobility index” to rank the nation’s bachelors degree-granting institutions, taking into consideration factors like the percentage of low-income students the institution serves, the average salaries of those graduates and how long it takes them to pay off the cost of a degree.

Unlike traditional college rankings, which prioritize a school’s selectivity, prestige and financial resources, “this new rating system emphasizes whether or not students are being left off better than the previous generation and able to earn a decent living, pay down their educational costs, and have a financially secure future,” said Michael Itzkowitz, senior fellow at Third Way and author of the report.

In Connecticut, where several schools rank highly on U.S. News & World Report’s annual list, Third Way’s economic mobility index offers a distinct picture. Eleven of the state’s 19 institutions — the majority — ranked in the bottom 40% of all schools nationwide.

Yale University and Wesleyan University, among the nation’s top private colleges, fell into Third Way’s second-highest tier. Itzkowitz said that’s because the economic mobility index prioritizes access. So while Yale and Wesleyan provide strong financial support to low-income students, and alumni earn far more than the average high school graduate, less than 20% of their respective student bodies come from low-income families.

“Being more accessible to the general public is looked at as a positive rather than a negative” in Third Way’s rankings, Itzkowitz said.

Connecticut’s top-tier schools for economic mobility were Post University in Waterbury, with 70% low-income students; Central Connecticut State University in New Britain with 38%; and the University of Connecticut in Storrs with 27%. (“Low-income” encompassed students eligible for federal Pell grants.)

Third Way’s rankings also included a metric dubbed the “price-to-earnings premium,” which weighs graduates’ average earnings 10 years out of school against the cost of a degree.

Nathan Fuerst, vice president for enrollment planning and management at UConn, didn’t seem surprised by the findings.

“UConn is consistently recognized as a best value for a college education. The reasons are evident,” he said in an emailed statement. Fuerst also noted that many UConn students graduate on time, which keeps down costs and indebtedness.

Leigh Appleby, a spokesman for Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, which include four schools that ranked in the top three tiers in the study, said, “It should not come as a surprise that our universities score well when it comes to economic mobility, but it is a reminder of the importance of investing in public higher education.”

Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, the University of New Haven, and Mitchell College in New London were ranked in the fifth tier, the bottom 20%, of the 1,320 schools in the data set.

Jennifer Widness, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, said she believes the Third Way report omitted an important metric: completion rates. “A number of the institutions that it ranks highly have well-below-average graduation rates. Therefore they are attracting students — many of whom are low-income — who are not completing at a very high percentage,” she wrote in an email.

Connecticut’s independent colleges, which include Sacred Heart, New Haven University and Mitchell, have above-average graduation rates for Pell-eligible students, she said. Widness added that CCIC schools collectively doubled their financial aid between 2010 and 2020, awarding $1.24 billion in 2020.

“Private non-profit colleges in Connecticut are investing as much as they can to make college affordable,” she said.

Itzkowitz said the purpose of the new ranking system is to call attention to colleges and universities “that have been delivering for a diverse group of students for years and doing it really well.”

He also said he hopes it might inform public and private spending. “There’s opportunity there to rethink how we allocate money to institutions of higher education,” he said.

Mark Dunn, a spokesman for Yale’s undergraduate admissions department, said his office “welcomes alternatives” to the traditional ratings. “I think policymakers, researchers, higher education leaders, and the general public benefit from seeing alternative methods for comparing schools — like these new rankings from Third Way.”

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.