female college student walks across bridge holding books on campus
Story Social Mobility

CSU Institutions Provide Greatest Economic Mobility, Return on Investment

Hazel Kelly

Two different national rankings recognize the California State University for social mobility and good value for low-income students.

female college student walks across bridge holding books on campus

​Photo Courtesy of Chico State/Jason Halley


​National rankings continue to confirm that a CSU education is life-changing and transformative, offering a good return on investment—particularly for students from underserved and underrepresented communities. A new report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, and an analysis from public policy think tank Third Way, both demonstrate the power of a California State University degree in lifting students' socioeconomic trajectory.

The January 25, 2022 Georgetown report, “The Colleges Where Low-Income Students Get the Highest ROI," found that public bachelor's-awarding institutions generally lead to the highest ROI for low-income students during a 40-year timeframe. When accounting for graduation rates and earnings of Pell Grant students, the top 20 bachelor's-level colleges with the best ROI for low-income students include five CSU campuses in the report's weighted rankings: Stanislaus State (#11), Cal Poly Pomona (#12), Cal State LA (#13), Cal State Long Beach (#14), and Cal State San Bernardino (#19). 

Third Way's January 27 report, “Out with the Old, In with the New: Rating Higher Ed by Economic Mobility," ranks six CSU campuses in its national top 10 list of universities that provide the most economic m​obility: Cal State LA (#1), CSU Dominguez Hills (#2), CSU Bakersfield (#5), Stanislaus State (#6), Fresno State (#7) and Cal State San Bernardino (#8). (Several other CSU campuses ranked high nationally, including CSU San Marcos​.)​​

The report created an Economic Mobility Index (EMI) by looking at the time it takes students to recoup their educational costs based off the earnings boost they obtain by attending an institution, and looking at the proportion of Pell Grant students an institution enrolls. Notably, the report points out that schools that provide the most economic mobility are Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) concentrated in three States: California, Texas and New York. (All of the CSU campuses in the top 10 are HSIs​.)

The paper's author, Third Way senior fellow Michael Itzkowitz, reports that the institutions that provide the most economic mobility do so for two main reasons: 1) they offer a quick return on investment for low-income students, and 2) they enroll mostly low-and moderate-income students as part of their overall student body.

At the CSU, nearly one-third of undergraduates are the first in their family to attend college, and half of CSU students are from underrepresented communities. In addition, nearly half of CSU undergraduates receive the Pell grant, indicating financial need. A CSU education offers an unparalleled value with one of the most affordable tuition costs in the nation, which will remain the same for the 2022-23 academic year.

​“As the largest, most diverse and most consequential four-year public university in the country, the CSU is proud to be one of our nation's greatest drivers of socioeconomic ascent," said CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro. “We are in the unique position to elevate not only individuals, but their families, our communities—our nation—through the power of higher education."

A leader in the national conversation around economic mobility, the CSU's Graduation Initiative 2025 is focused on helping students earn degrees in less time—finishing with less debt and entering the workforce earlier. The CSU is further focusing its initiative on closing equity gaps between students from underrepresented communities and their peers.