Prioritizing Everyday Victories

Prioritizing Everyday Victories

We are proud to have played in the Fiesta Bowl, but fostering social mobility in higher education matters even more.

By Dale Whittaker

headshot of ucf president dale whittaker

As president of the University of Central Florida, I spend considerable time talking to fans about our football team and where the Knights land in national rankings (No. 11 in the final AP poll).

However, truth be told, the inherent inequities in the College Football Playoff system — despite our team’s incredible season — are much less concerning to me than those of another traditional measuring stick of college success: the U.S. News & World Report’s annual “best colleges” rankings.

The U.S. News rankings favor exclusivity at the expense of what colleges are supposed to do: improve social mobility, and help students of all socioeconomic backgrounds learn and move up in the world.

Too often, a college or university’s success is based on exclusivity or endowments rather than its ability to take students from all backgrounds and walks of life and help them unleash their full potential.

The transformative power of education isn’t about picking the student who’s already most likely to succeed. It’s about identifying untapped talent with grit and indefatigable can-do spirit to give it their all, no matter the challenges.

In a modern economy that demands a college degree, stagnating mobility is devastating. Only 11 percent of students whose families are in the bottom income quartile (an annual family income of less than $37,564) earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24. In the top quartile, 58 percent of students do. UCF will never stop prioritizing social mobility — we aren’t going to stop taking a large cohort of first-generation students and students using Pell Grants in the hopes of ticking up a few spots on the U.S. News rankings. But U.S. News should not be knocking us or any other school for making that decision.

This is an urgent problem. In today’s America, social mobility is rapidly fading.

U.S. News took a step in the right direction when, for the first time, it factored social mobility into its 2019 rankings, giving schools more credit for graduating larger numbers of students who receive Pell Grants. But the modest adjustment produced modest changes, and it hardly affected the top 10 at all. More needs to be done.

Higher Ed is Failing its Social Mobility Mission

UCF and other similarly minded schools would move up the U.S. News rankings dramatically if the rankings prioritized social mobility. We’re a great-value public research university, where nearly a quarter of our undergraduate students are first-generation college students and 40 percent are Pell Grant-eligible.


An illustration of a Knight carrying people on his shoulders.“Social mobility has never been more valuable: Those with a bachelor’s degree earn 73 percent more on average than those who only completed high school, up from 50 percent in the late 1970s”

America’s higher education system is failing in its mission to foster social mobility. According to a study published last March in the journal Demography, the gap is growing between the rich and poor graduating from college.

But at UCF, we know talent isn’t restricted by income — only opportunity is. And we’re graduating low-income students at nearly twice the national average of all four-year institutions. We help them secure good jobs in strong fields as soon as they graduate. And in December, we announced a record $40 million investment in institutional financial aid. Social mobility is our calling card.

Social mobility has never been more valuable: Those with a bachelor’s degree earn 73 percent more on average than those who only completed high school, up from 50 percent in the late 1970s.

Supporting Strivers Outside the Elite is Crucial

I’m proud that we played in our third New Year’s Day Bowl since 2014. And I’m proud of how our players competed against a worthy opponent in LSU.

But what matters most to me is what happens outside the game. Do our students secure a great job after earning their degree? Are they on their way to a great career? Are they going to do better than the socioeconomic class they came from would have predicted?

The answers to those questions are more important.

Whether the College Football Playoff system is unfair to strivers such as UCF gets the lion’s share of the ink. But what I care about even more is how higher education supports strivers from outside the elite who are the first in their families to go to college.

The answer to that question will tell us whether social mobility will survive in a nation founded upon it.


This article originally appeared in USA Today on Dec. 31, and was updated to reflect the outcome of the Fiesta Bowl.