Avoid the trappings of college prestige

Published: 11/3/2020 11:13:50 AM

Question: My top choice college is not ranked as high as some of the others on my application list. My parents want me to prioritize the schools that are ranked higher. What should I do?

Answer: You are certainly not alone in this dilemma. Commercial college rankings like U.S. News and World Report have an unhealthy grip on the culture of college admission in this country and around the world. Unfortunately, these subjective and flawed lists not only dictate policy and practice at schools but also perpetuate a focus on status and prestige rather than a meaningful match.

Today, people across our nation are hopefully headed to the polls to cast their vote and decide the direction of our country for the next four years.

As you prepare to make choices about the next four years of your life, it is important that you identify your priorities. What is the experience you want to have in college? Do you have specific goals that you want to accomplish or careers that you want to prepare for? What kind of people do you want to be surrounded by and what values are important to you in a community? Then ask yourself whether commercial rankings can provide the answers to any of these more personal questions? Encourage your parents to do the same.

It is often said that college is the “best four years of your life.” Over the next few months, there are going to be a lot of people who want to tell you how to spend those years. While you might seek insight from those who know you best, only you know what is right. You need to have all the facts straight and do your best to cut through the noise.

Political candidates have been doing the hard sell for what seems to be an eternity, through marketing, visits to your community, and other outreach efforts. Meanwhile, pundits and polls purport to present the pulse of the populace – an effort to quantify who the favorite is. A parallel phenomenon exists with college rankings, where college administrators are asked to review other schools. Twenty percent of the U.S. News methodology for the “best colleges” rankings are based on this glorified popularity contest, or what they call expert opinion and peer assessment. In fact, many of these so-called experts know little or nothing about the schools they are rating.

Hopefully, as citizens should not rely on polls to choose our next leader, you will also renounce external determinations of what is right for you.

While you might not be of age to directly impact who runs the country for the next four years, you can control your future. If you are someone who needs to quantify decisions with numbers, create your own proprietary ranking system with the criteria that is most important to you in a college. Rate each school based on your own evaluation of how they meet your needs and wants. Share this with your parents and have open conversations about the experience you want to have in college. Do they need more convincing? Suggest they read Frank Bruni’s “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania,” Jeff Selingo’s “Who Gets In And Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” or a report by Challenge Success, titled “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity.”

If you are able to vote, assert your freedom to choose and vote your conscience. If not, at least do so in your own life and make the best choice for you for the next four years.

Brennan Barnard is the director of college counseling and outreach at The Derryfield School and the college admission program adviser at The Making Caring Common project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is co-author of the book, “The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.”

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