Yikes: Wesleyan Ranks 1972nd in Economic Mobility for Low Income Students

“The numbers are always underwritten by the real struggles against classism and the impactful activism of low-income students.”

Winter Wesleyan, Jan. 20, 2012.

[Updated 1/24/17, 9:45AM] The infographic has the minimum wage at Wesleyan listed as $9.60. This was the wage for 2016, but the state of Connecticut raised the wage to $10.10 effective Jan. 2017. Many thanks to Noah Kahan ’19 for catching this.

For countless cycles of matriculation, prospective Wes students have been concerned about our reputation on College Confidential. TBT amirite? This worry soon goes away (hopefully), for a variety of reasons. Despite our Forbes ranking of #9 in the country last year, I’d say most of us still don’t put much stock in college rankings.

The Forbes ranking system focuses on present value and return on investment. Basically, they tend to prioritize student satisfaction rates and alumni earnings, among other things. This system countered US News’ prioritizing of prestige measures like endowment size and “quality” of applicant pool (think SAT scores). In a similar vein to Forbes, the New York Times just released a host of rankings based on, you know, what you can actually expect to gain (financially) from college. Their rankings were released last Wednesday and focus on measures of upward mobility.

The rankings come from a study by The Equality of Opportunity Project in which the authors construct what they call “mobility report cards” for every single college in America. These report cards tracked student and parental income data from 1999-2013. The Times published some great interactive data visualizations from the study, searchable by college. As you can tell from the headline, we were curious about how Wesleyan stacked up. Let’s break it down:

It’s important to reiterate a few nationwide trends that the Times  mentioned. First, around 40% of college students from the top 0.1% of incomes attend an elite college or university. This is compared with <0.5% of students from the bottom fifth of incomes. Elite colleges are defined as the 8 Ivy League schools, Stanford, Duke, UChicago, MIT, and all other schools with a Barron Selectivity Index of 1, which includes Wesleyan.

Perhaps the most alarming finding from this study for Wes students is how poorly we performed in the authors’ definitions of economic mobility. Among all colleges in the nation, Wesleyan comes in at number 1,972. Mobility numbers are calculated by multiplying the fraction of students at a college that come from the bottom 40% of incomes by the fraction of those students that reach the top 40% of incomes. In Wesleyan’s case 65.8% of the students that had parents in the bottom 40th percentile of incomes (themselves representing 9.8% of the total student body) reached the top 40th percentile of incomes during the period of study. 


I should note that the “success rate” or the rate at which lower income students did make it into the top 40% of earners was higher for Wesleyan than some of the schools that had higher overall mobility ratings. The lower overall percentage of low income students at Wesleyan—when compared with other schools—is likely hurting our mobility rating. 

Despite 17% of all Wes students coming from families in the top 1% of earners, only 5.9% of graduates—regardless of their family circumstance—were in the top 1% of earners by age 34. In fact, while 70% of all students came from families in the top 20% of income levels, this percentage was only 50% for 34-year-old Wesleyan graduates. So, earnings distributions of graduates are in fact lower overall than those of the family incomes for incoming students.

The median income for Wesleyan students at age 34 was $56,400. Median income was distributed unequally between men and women. Data on other gender identities was not presented. The median income for male-identifying 34-year-old Wes alums was $60,200. The corresponding income for female-identifying graduates was $52,100.

By age ~34, around 50% of Wesleyan students were married. This can affect comparisons to median family income of incoming college students. While marriage status does not dictate household size, the possibility of filing taxes jointly, or the income levels of either person in the marriage, it can still contribute to measurements of total family income. 

The New York Times  noted that 38 colleges and universities in the country had more students from the top 1% of incomes than from the bottom 60%. Wesleyan only just escaped this group, ranking 39th in the country for the top1:bottom60 ratio.


Among elite colleges, Wesleyan ranks 23rd in the percentage of students coming from the bottom 40% of incomes in the country. The writers at the Times  say that despite elite colleges’ perennially low rates of “access” to middle- and low-income students, these students, when they do attend, end up reaching around the same earnings percentile by age 34 as their richer counterparts.


In the Times  page specific to Wes, you can see tons more data from the study. The data is divided by “access,” “outcomes,” and “mobility.” The page also ranks Wesleyan by eight criteria among 65 “other elite colleges.” This group includes every school that has a Barron Selectivity Index of 1 that is not an Ivy and is not MIT, Duke, Stanford, or UChicago. There seems to be the possibility of ranking Wesleyan against schools in Connecticut and schools in the NESCAC, but these links were broken at the time of writing.

I decided to put a lot of all this shit in a cute lil infographic because—well, just because. I also added some numbers from the Wesleyan website that relate to economic mobility and accessibility in some capacity. Make sure you check the end of this post for those citations.



Every stat that is not covered in the footnotes of this article is from the New York Times (see links above)

Surely, all of these statistics do not fully represent the lived experiences of low-income students at Wesleyan, or any student for that matter. Whilst living among the frenzy of big data, it is really important to assess whether or not you are listening to and prioritizing the voices of low-income students in conversations about class. 

It is hard to tell whether the results of this massive study reflect more about our society as a whole or about Wesleyan’s oh-so-particular position in society. It is likely that income demographics have shifted since the early 2000s nationwide. This is also likely true at Wes, most notably because of our ending of need-blind admissions beginning with the Class of 2017. 

For the first time ever, every single student currently at Wesleyan was admitted after need-blind was axed. Many of us were on campus when almost 100 students took over a WSA meeting in the Spring of 2015 to protest rampant classism in the Assembly. First gen and low-income students have been ceaselessly organizing on campus in the past several years and were instrumental in establishing First Things First, a pre-orientation program for first-generation college students. But, just last year, during the fight for a $15/hr minimum wage at Wesleyan, we were reminded of Antonio Farias’ comments accusing those working more than 20hrs/week of mimicking the middle and upper class lifestyles. 

All of these stories inform these mass datasets. The numbers are always underwritten by the real struggles against classism and the impactful activism of low-income students. The burden of advocating for economic equity and access on campus so often falls on those who are already having to manage being from a low-income background and/or the process of class-transitioning. 

*Citations for infographic: The percentage of first-years receiving need-based aid can be found here. The total cost of attendance can be found here (note: only the CoA for first-years and sophomores is shown in infographic). The minimum wage at Wesleyan can be found here. The percentage of applications evaluated under need-aware can be found here. The amount raised for access from THISISWHY can be found here. The percentage of the class of 2020 that is first-generation can be found here. The number of students working more than 20 hours per week can be found here. All other statistics in the infographic can be found here and here.