In his book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, Frank Bruni paints vivid and harrowing pictures of parents who have had a plan for their child to get into an Ivy League university from the time they were born. He describes the dread with which students face standardized tests and the pressure to achieve just to secure entrance to one of the most elite institutions of the U.S.
But is it worth it? Attending one of the top schools in the nation certainly has its rewards. Graduates from schools like Yale, Penn and Harvard receive one of the highest quality educations money can buy and typically do quite well in the working world. This is why these top schools rank quite highly according to US News and in our own data.
But rankings seldom reflect the real world, and the reality is that only the top 5-10% of students in the country will make it into the top 100 universities in the U.S. Are 90% of the remaining college students doomed to failure? Of course not. A smart and motivated student can find success at nearly any school.
I can definitely agree with Bruni as he makes the case for ending the mania surrounding college admissions. Choosing a college is a big decision, yes, but the frenzy fueled by rankings needs to stop as most rankings have little bearing on what is realistic or appropriate for the particular student at hand.
Problems With College Rankings
Data is Manipulated
One of the key metrics in the US News ranking is an institution’s selectivity. Colleges become rewarded not for how many students they accept, but how many they turn away. This data point is notoriously easy to manipulate. Colleges often just boost their marketing efforts or use other tactics to encourage more students to apply so they can turn more students away and make themselves appear more selective.
Bruni gives a specific example of Swarthmore College which noticed a 16% drop in applications in 2014 after they had included a requirement in their application for two 500 word essays. Swarthmore dropped the requirement to just one essay of 250 words in order to encourage more applications.
Kids have become accustomed to applying to schools almost reflexively, without any real attachment to many of them, and schools have become invested in the sheer number of applications they receive, regardless of the seriousness of the applicants. (page 45)
Limits Students Options
Another big problem with rankings, specifically the US News rankings is it artificially limits students’ possibilities.
Bruni tells the story of a former college admissions counselor who would predictably witness students abandoning good-fit college lists for cookie-cutter lists made-up of schools who appear in the US News Rankings.
In his interview with Condoleezza Rice (who went to Stanford), Bruni shares her distaste of rankings as well.
And one of her chief problems with the U.S. News rankings… They unnecessarily shrink the pool of schools that kids consider. In constructing a hierarchy of colleges, they give short shrift to the multitude and diversity of them, and they imply that certain schools are better for everyone, when they may only be better for particular students with particular dispositions. “I think we end up limiting students’ horizons too early,” she said. (page 45)
The Schools are Impossible to Get Into
As if it weren’t bad enough that colleges artificially manipulate data to improve in the rankings, the truth of the matter is most of the top ranked schools are nearly impossible to get into.
Harvard University has an acceptance rate of less than 6%. Students have to have a killer GPA and application as well as round-out their skills with an impressive list of extracurriculars in order to receive an acceptance letter. But the factor that could count the most towards getting accepted has nothing to do with a student’s skill sand everything to do with who they are related to.
According to Bruni, “Harvard has also acknowledged that the acceptance rate for primary legacies is in the vicinity of 30 percent—or roughly five times what it is for the overall applicant pool. (page 51)
This is not a practice limited to Harvard. According to research by Michael Hurwitz, “among students with seemingly equivalent grades, test scores and other qualifications, legacies had a 23.3 percent better chance of admission than nonlegacies.” (page 49)
What’s really important when it comes to choosing a college?
I doubt it will come as any surprise to find that debt has a huge impact on a student’s success after college. Bruni cited a study by Gallup and Purdue that found that student debt has a significant impact on student well-being and engagement at work.
Graduates with between $20,000 and $40,000 in loans, which the report defined as the average student loan debt, were much less likely to be thriving than graduates without any loans to repay. (page 150)
This is a big reason why one of College Factual’s ranking factors is student loan default rates.
The study by Gallup and Purdue also found that time to graduate had an impact on student success.
And graduates who’d finished school in four years or less were much more likely to be engaged at work than those who’d taken longer. (page 151)
Considering only 32% of the students from the colleges we survey are able to complete their degrees on time, graduating in four years can be considered indicative of a highly motivated student as well as a college that is supporting their students.
Even Bruni has to admit that finding a good college fit, regardless of how the school ranks nationally, can make a difference for a student.
Each college-bound student has his or her own needs, and there are schools that are likely to meet them and schools that aren’t. (page 130)
He gives many interesting examples of students who followed their own instincts as to what college was right for them, often bypassing schools that were much higher ranked in US News. These students’ success lies greatly with their own initiative, as well as the inner strengths they were gifted with to begin with. But all of these students were able to pursue their strengths and interests at colleges that ended up being the right places for them to thrive.
A school, like a dress or a suit, has to have the contours and colors that work for the person choosing it. It has to fit. (page 129)
Have you read Frank Bruni’s book? What did you think? How did you and your family approach the college application and admissions process?