What do U.S. News rankings really tell you?

Valerie Strauss has an interesting piece, How US News Concocts its College Rankings, on her blog today. You might be surprised what data is—and is not—used to decide which colleges are really “best.”

And for a more in-depth rankings takedown, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s past piece in the New Yorker, shared on the Colleges That Change Lives website.

Nowhere to go but forward

From Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams:

“The right college is the last, best chance for masses of teenagers to find themselves in a situation where they have no choice but to grow. And fast. The editor at the Harvard Lampoon experiences this. I felt it when I co-ran a large student-run business. The advanced physics major discovers this on her first day at the high-energy lab, working on a problem no one has ever solved before. That’s the reason to spend the time and spend the money and hang out on campus: so you can find yourself in a dark alley with nowhere to go but forward.”

Get bleak to feel positive

Imagine you were told today that you (or for parents, your kid) would never be able to go to college. That opportunity is gone, and it is never coming back. You’ll never move into a dorm. You’ll never get to choose your classes or your major. You’ll never get to spend those four years learning, growing, discovering your talents and having fun. College memories? You won’t be creating any. College degree? You won’t be getting one. So your plans for the future will probably need to change. After high school, that’s it. Best of luck to you.

Now, imagine a college offered you a chance to attend.  But the school, while respectable, isn’t prestigious.

Would you be any less thankful?

And the bigger question when you come back to reality—why can’t you start being thankful for that opportunity today?

Are prestigious colleges life-changers?

Prestigious colleges aren’t necessarily better schools. That’s an over-arching theme of my blog and of our work at Collegewise. It’s why we encourage students to work hard to give themselves as many college options as possible, but not to define their success based on whether or not a highly-seletive college says yes. What students do in college is much more important than the name of the school where they do it.

Non-believers should take a close look at the results of a new Gallup Poll, summarized in this NPR article:

There’s plenty of anxiety in the U.S. over getting into a top college. But a new Gallup poll suggests that, later in life, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as we think. In fact, when you ask college graduates whether they’re ‘engaged’ with their work or ‘thriving’ in all aspects of their lives, their responses don’t vary one bit whether they went to a prestigious college or not.”

Survey says…it’s what you do, not where you go

Inside Higher Ed reported that according to a recent Gallup survey, only 9% of business leaders rank where an applicant went to college as “very important” during the hiring process. But 84% agreed that an applicant’s knowledge and applied skills in the field were “very important."

What you do in college is more important than where you do it. Here’s a past post on how to have a remarkable college career (regardless of where you have it).

Five things that matter more than where you go to college

Aja Frost is only a freshman in college (at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo).  But she already has a pretty good handle on what it takes to be successful in life, as revealed in her post Five Things That Matter More Than Where You Go To College

I write here often that what you do in college will be much more important than where you go.  And Jay Mathews of the Washington Post has been leading that charge since 1999 when he wrote Harvard Schmarvard, and in more recent articles like this one

None of us is saying that you shouldn't work hard or that you shouldn't care a lot about your college future. We're saying that good effort combined with good character means more than the name of any college on your degree. 

The right fit

The 5,000+ Collegewise students we’ve helped find and get accepted to the right colleges remind us all the time how true my three over-arching themes on this blog are:

  1. The path to college should be an exciting time for every family. 
  2. Prestigious colleges aren’t inherently better schools.
  3. What you do in college will be more important than where you do it.

Last month, the president of Point Loma Nazarene University in California asked five department heads to each nominate a student they believe will make a mark on the world.  One of the five chosen is our former Collegewise student, Kami (shared here with permission).

From the president of Point Loma's annual report,

Fortunately, she (Kami) found a strong encourager in her advisor, Susan Rogers, chair of the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. Rogers and Kami share a passion for child and adolescent development (Kami’s major) and a particular interest in family systems…Now a sophomore, Kami has fully immersed herself in her education. She is a teacher’s assistant at PLNU’s Early Childhood Learning Center, leads a student dance ministry, and works in the theatre.

The full story appears on page 8 (Kami also made the cover).

A school can tout small classes, personal attention, and caring professors.  A school like Point Loma can also promise an environment where religious students can grow both spiritually and intellectually.  But no matter what a college promises (or how famous the school making the promises is), it is always up to the student to take advantage of those opportunities like Kami is doing at Point Loma. 

Kami and her parents started her college search with one goal—to find the right school where Kami could be happy and successful, and that also fit within their family’s budget.  Since she arrived on campus, it’s been up to Kami to make the most of her experience.   It hasn’t always been easy or perfect (no worthwhile experience is), but Kami is making an impact in and out of the classroom.  She’s getting noticed by the faculty.  She’s accumulating experiences for her resume and finding mentors who can guide her.  And she’s only a sophomore.  Imagine how much she’ll have to show for her four years on campus when she graduates. 

You can do it, too.  Look for the right schools, whether or not they’re famous.  Enjoy the journey.  And once you get to college, make it a daily mission to extract as much learning, growth and value from the experience as you can.

Congratulations, Kami.  We’re all looking forward to seeing what you do next.

Make informed rankings choices

This New York Times Op-Ed provides not only a good explanation as to why the President’s proposed college ranking system is a bad idea, it also presents an alternative solution—put all the information in a searchable database without actually ranking the schools.  Then let each family decide for themselves which information they want to use to inform their college searches.

I believe colleges can be evaluated.  Families need to have accurate information to make those choices.  But I don’t think that schools can be ranked.  How can a formula tell you that one college is better than another for you?  It doesn’t work, and nobody has proven that it does.

For families whose kids will be applying to college in 2015 or beyond (when the proposed ranking system will be implemented), you might need to make some difficult choices about whether or not to pay attention to how the Department of Education ranks your chosen colleges.  I think you know where I’ll be leaning, but whether or not you agree, make an informed choice.

If you want to succeed…

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post has long been fighting the good fight against collegiate namebranditis.  In his regular column and his outstanding 2003 book, Harvard Schmarvard, Jay always injects healthy doses of both reality and perspective for families who are going through the college admissions process.  Here’s a snippet from his latest piece, How to stop Worrying about college rejection:

"If you want to succeed, worry less about what college you get into and more about doing your homework, taking care of your chores and being nice to other people, as mothers have been saying for a long time. Whatever college accepts you, see it as a treasure trove of people and ideas that will lead you to a great life, maybe even a governorship, if that’s your dream. It is a very American story sometimes forgotten in our fashionable yearning for colleges that reject the most applicants."