New Study on College Rankings: It’s Not Where You Go To School It’s What You Do When You Get There

My son is a high school senior and we are consequently in the thick of all the stress that comes with the college application process. Most of that stress derives from the firmly held belief that many of us have embraced that attending a “top tier” school ensures success in life after college.

Students are encouraged to find a college that is the “right fit” for them. But, a new study asks, “What do college rankings really measure? Are students who attend more selective colleges better off later in life? What is ‘fit’ and why does it matter?” The study by scholars at Stanford Graduate School of Education and released by GSE-affiliated Challenge Success attempts to answer these questions by reviewing and synthesizing the most important research in the area to date.

New study on college rankings

The study delves into three areas of confusion, “the methodology behind college rankings; what, if anything, they say about student success; and, the meaning of ‘right fit’ when choosing a school.”

The paper’s co-author Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the GSE and co-founder of Challenge Success, first takes issue with college rankings for a host of reasons, among them the changeability of the methodology used, and the inaccuracy and arbitrariness of the data.

For instance, the U.S. News & World Report uses previous and projected graduation rates, and school reputation to account for almost half of a school’s ranking, but Pope points out that these measures are imprecise and easy to misinterpret. Graduation rates says Pope, “have little to do with the institution; they’re based more on individual circumstances, like family income.”

And, school reputation has a bit of a chicken and egg issue in that ranking drives reputation and reputation in turn drives ranking, in a virtuous cycle. Pope concludes that, “When it comes to college rankings, there isn’t an agreed-upon set of metrics used or a scientific way of weighting them.”

Having found deficiencies in the accuracy of rankings, the study goes on to ascertain what actually is the most important element in achieving favorable life outcomes for students. The findings are fascinating, and yet completely commensurate with what most of us have seen in the course of our lives.

In sifting through the literature, the study found that students are the drivers of their own destinies. In other words, “Research tells us that the most successful students, both in college and beyond, are the ones who engage in the undergraduate experience regardless” of the school’s selectivity.

Students who study hard at any school will learn more than students who slack off at any school and students, “who…study hard, form strong relationships with professors and participate in the college community tend to thrive during and after school whether they attended a ‘top-ranked’ institution or not.”

There are many factors (sports, Greek life, financial concerns and others) that should weigh more heavily in choosing a school than the school ranking. The bottom line is that when choosing a school students,

should ask whether they will be engaged at the college in ways that will allow them to form strong relationships with professors and mentors, apply their learning via internships and long-term projects, and find a sense of community.

“A college is a good fit for your student if they will “be engaged — in class and out — by what the college has to offer.” The study concludes that,

Regardless of whether a student attends a college ranked in the top 5% or one ranked much lower, the research strongly suggests that engagement in college, how a student spends his or her time, matters much more in the long run than the college a student attends.

Students and their families are asked to look beyond rankings and selectivity in the college search process, and instead seek a good fit, a school where students can engage and participate fully in academic and social life in order to thrive during the college years and beyond.

Kids and parents-here’s a message you need to hear during this season of college applications, it’s not where you go to school that matters, it’s what you do when you get there—and now we have the data to back that statement up. So your college search should start and end by looking at schools where you will be comfortable engaging fully in the learning community. Your future job satisfaction and well-being may depend on it.


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About Helene Wingens

Helene Wingens has always been passionate about painting pictures with words. She graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in psychology and three years later from Boston University School of Law with a Juris Doctor. In a year long clerkship for an appellate judge Helene honed her writing skills by drafting weekly appellate memoranda. She practiced law until she practically perfected it and after taking a brief twenty year hiatus to raise her three children she began writing a personal blog Her essays have been published in: Scary Mommy, Kveller, The Forward, and Grown and Flown where she is Managing Editor. You can visit Helene's website here

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