Cal Poly Humboldt student at graduation holding her daughter.
Story Social Mobility

What is Social Mobility Anyway?

Janessa Thropay

Learn how higher education is a primary driver of improved socioeconomic status.

Cal Poly Humboldt student at graduation holding her daughter.

​Photo courtesy of Cal Poly Humboldt


The California State University educates some of the most ethnically, economically and academically diverse student populations in the nation, and nearly one-third of CSU students are the first in their families to attend college. ​The CSU frequently highlights its ability to provide “social mobility" for its students, particularly those who are first-generation college students​. The question is: What exactly is social mobility and how does it relate to obtaining a college degree?

Social Mobility and Higher Education

First coined in 1927 by Pitirim Sorokin, a sociologist and political activist, social mobility refers to the movement of a person from one social status to another. In countries like the United States, individuals are freer to improve their social standing and experience upward social mobility.

Upward social mobility, the type of social mobility referenced in college rankings, describes the improvement of an individual's socioeconomic status. Although there are various means for attaining upward social mobility, obtaining a college degree is one of the most common and proven methods. Furthermore, “social mobility" is not simply limited to an increase in annual income. It can also include greater opportunities in society that would otherwise be unattainable, such as more prestigious jobs, wider professional networks and better access to health care.

Data from the 2012 Pew Economic Mobility Project shows that earning a four-year college degree promotes upward mobility from the bottom of the family income and wealth ladders and prevents downward mobility from the middle and top rungs. A 2021 study from Georgetown University demonstrated that the lifetime value of a college degree is $2.8 million. This analysis also discovered that bachelor's degree holders earned 75% more money than those who only had high school diplomas.

However, college graduates don't only have a higher rate of upward economic mobility. R​esearch collected in 2015 by the Lumina Foundation ​demonstrates that degree holders report higher levels of happiness and better overall health outcomes due to higher quality living conditions and health care, as well as less stress. Additionally, College Board's 2023 report, Education Pay​s, shares that college graduates​ face lower rates of unemployment and are more likely to enjoy the stability that comes from retirement plans and health insurance.

Social Mobility and the CSU

The personal benefits of higher education are many, yet not everyone has an equal opportunity to attend college. First-generation, low-income students are less likely to attend college and, when they do, are less likely to complete their degree. This fact has caused organizations measuring colleges' impact on social mobility to adjust their methodologies to paint a clearer picture of which universities provide students, especially those who are historically underserved, with the chance of a better life and a brighter future.

The Wall Street Journal, CollegeNet and U.S. News & World Report are a few of the most noteworthy college social mobility rankings in the nation. Each ranking system follows a slightly different methodology, but at their core, they share the same guiding principle: How well colleges and universities attract, retain, and help students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds complete their degrees and graduate into good-paying jobs.

My parents always shared with me that, 'The only inheritance a poor family can leave its children is a good education.'​ ​- CSU Chancellor Garcí​a

In 2023, the CSU dominated national social mobility rankings. Cal State LA topped the Wall Street Journal and College Pulse 2024 Social Mobility Rankings, followed by eight other CSUs in the top 20. CSU Dominguez Hills claimed the number one spot in CollegeNet's “Social Mobility Index," with eight more CSUs ranked in the top 20. Finally, in the U.S. News & World Report 2024 Best Colleges Rankings, Cal State Long Beach took the top spot among national universities promoting social mobility—with four other CSUs placing in the top 10. This recognition demonstrates the CSU's focus on educating, graduating and elevating all its students regardless of their economic or family situations.

No other CSU effort has helped the university's students achieve upward mobility more than Graduation Initiative 2025 (GI2025). Since GI2025's launch in 2015, the CSU's four-year graduation rates for first-time students have nearly doubled. In recent years, the initiative has focused on closing equity gaps between historically underserved students and their peers by reengaging and reenrolling students, implementing digital degree planners, expanding credit opportunities, removing administrative barriers to graduation and promoting equitable learning practices.

Along with providing a high-quality and equitable education, prioritizing affordability has been central to the CSU's mission, ensuring access to higher education for a greater number of individuals. The university has worked to maintain a competitively low annual tuition, while also securing access to financial assistance for students in need. In June 2023, former CSU Chancellor Jolene Koester appointed a workgroup charged with maximizing financial aid and ensuring affordability for CSU's current and future students. In September 2023, the CSU Board of Trustees approved a multi-year tuition proposal that included a commitment of an additional $280 million for student financial aid over five years in the form of the State University Grant​. This would designate at least a third of tuition revenue for student financial aid.

It is the belief of the CSU that any individual interested in pursuing their higher education should have the opportunity and proper support to do so. By continuing to adjust to the current financial and social reality of its students, the CSU provides them with an avenue to obtain upward social mobility for themselves and their families.

“My parents always shared with me that, 'The only inheritance a poor family can leave its children is a good education,'" said CSU Chancellor Mildred García during her welcome address at the 2023 Social Mobility Symposium. “And I have lived their dream. Social mobility is not only my personal story; it's my professional story. It's been my highest honor to play a role in elevating the lives of thousands of students through the transformative power of higher education."

Generational Impact

The life-changing impact of a college degree is not limited to a singular person, but has the ability to impact generations. A study of first-generation college students ​published by the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics showed that children of college-educated parents are more likely to pursue and complete an undergraduate degree than young people whose parents did not attend college.

For this reason, the socioeconomic trajectories of many families have been elevated because of CSU graduates' decisions to pursue higher education. The Tisnado family is a prime example as Janet Tisnado's ('99) decision  to pursue her degree in electrical engineering at San Diego State inspired her two sons to follow in her footsteps. Similarly, Joseph Fraga couldn't have imagined his earning a degree from Fresno State in the 1950s would result in the next two generations doing the same. Their determination to create a better future for themselves became the storyline for their families' futures.

By empowering students and their families through access to social mobility, the CSU is dismantling systemic barriers that students from under-resourced communities often face. And in doing so, the CSU enriches the state's economy by graduating students who represent diverse perspectives and lived experiences that reflect our new majority. ​​

Janet Tisnado pictured with her two sons. Janet Tisnado (left) with her sons Danny (center) and Miguel (right). Photo courtesy of Melinda Sevilla/​SDSU 
Craig Collins pictured beside his family, three generations of Fresno State Bulldogs
 Joseph Fra​ga (center) surrounded by his wife Maybelle ​and two generations of Fresno State Bulldogs. Photo courtesy of Fresno State

​Ex​p​lore the CSU's most recent rankings and accolades, and discover 10 benefits of a college degree.​