Every fall, there’s a new crisis in college admissions. More students are applying, and less are being accepted to the premium colleges. A crisis in education…or is it?
The US News and World Report publishes every year the rankings that are considered to be the gold standard for college rankings in America. It lists in order the “best colleges in America”. Are they the best colleges in America? Would they be right for you or your child?
The truth is, there are hundreds of good colleges in the nation, in almost every community, and most of them will freely admit most of the students who apply. Each has its own different set of benefits and disadvantages. So what’s the crisis crunch in admissions that is being talked about?
The media loves to play up the 100 colleges or so that are considered “Ivy League” or exceptional in one respect or another. Choosing a college based on the US News and World Report ranking would be about as effective as choosing a college based on a ranking printed in Rolling Stone or in a book from the library. These 100 colleges get more press, so more people know about them. Hence, more admissions and less students are accepted, which feeds the cycle of being “exclusive”, when the education you receive at these exclusive schools might be just as good as you’d receive from the local community college (and a lot more expensive than the community college).
It’s a perceived shortcut, when in fact, there is no shortcut. You must evaluate colleges yourself, based on what criteria are important to you. Consider the following questions:
Will you get a better education at a higher-ranked college?
No matter where you choose to go to school, the law of the harvest remains. You get out of a college course what you put into it. This follows whether or not you get a good teacher, or whether or not the class is top-drawer or average. If you go to Yale or Harvard and get Cs and Ds, you’re not getting a good education.
Will you get better network contacts at an exclusive school?
There is a bit of a “yes” in this one. Selective schools attract many wealthy or famous people’s children and famous people’s children. These children will be very highly connected in many ways, but whether or not this is a useful point is questionable.
Networking opportunities will be available regardless of the college, and they will be different in each school. Choosing a school for its networking opportunities is a very dubious reason for going to a particular school, and certainly can’t be quantified in any substantial way.
Will you make more money by graduating from a more selective college or university?
Some studies say you do, some say you don’t. Stacey Dale and Alan Krueger came to an interesting conclusion in one study, where they found that simply having applied to a selective college meant higher income. They theorized that future income would have more to do with a student’s own ambition, drive and sense of confidence in their abilities, than as a result of what college they attended (Springer, p. 18-19).
Will you get better teachers at a more expensive, more exclusive university?
Many colleges recruit students with promises of being taught by Nobel laureate teachers. Something akin to a bait-and-switch can happen, especially at research universities. Teachers trying to gain or preserve tenure are under pressure to produce research work themselves, and end up delegating their classes to be taught by stressed-out graduate students, some of whom even struggle with English. It may not be what you expected when you signed on for the classes.
The truth is that excellent students can be found in many different colleges. Excellent teachers are at all sorts of colleges, and can often be found through recommendations of other students and advisors.
Money can be saved by focusing on local colleges and universities instead of going long distances for benefits that are largely imaginary, but much more expensive. College rankings offer the illusion of making your decision for you, but in the end there’s no substitute for legwork. Ultimately you need to find a college that’s a good fit for you. The good news is that there are lots of choices to choose from. The bad news is that there are lots of choices to make.
Springer, Sally P. and Marion R. Franck, Admission Matters. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, 2005.