I hear this fairly often from my students. But that’s not surprising considering that the US News and World Report college rankings have been around as long as I have. My follow-up to this kind of objection is to dig into where this concern is really coming from. For many students and parents, it’s an economic issue. They value the rankings because they believe that future employers value them, that people who graduate from prestigious colleges have a better chance of getting good jobs.
So I told them, “I’m going to say something controversial. I truly believe that you can get just as good an education and find just as good a job and live just as good a life if you go to San Jose State as if you go to Stanford.” I could tell they were skeptical, and realistically, they might never fully believe that. But we’re planting seeds here. Which is why I was thrilled when I heard about the latest white paper from the Challenge Success team: A "Fit" Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity.
Challenge Success often works within high schools recommending changes like block schedules and limited AP classes to try to foster a saner and more supportive educational environment. But they found that they were getting a lot of pushback from school administrators who worried that making these changes would disadvantage their students in the college application process, and worse, for the rest of their lives. So they set out to find the answer to the question, “Does it matter where you go to college?”
I won’t try to summarize the entire report here, but I will share a few takeaways:
- “There is no evidence that students’ learning will suffer for attending a less selective college.” In fact, the thing that does actually correlate with gains in learning is the amount of time students spend studying.
- “There is some evidence to suggest that institutional selectivity is associated with long-term financial outcomes.” But it’s unclear whether this is a product of the institution or the type of students who choose to attend selective colleges.
- “The students who benefit the most from college are those who are most engaged in their academics and campus communities, taking advantage of the opportunities and resources their particular institution provides. Engagement is the key.”
Challenge Success argues – and I agree – that there is no correlation between where you go to college and the overall success and happiness of your life. What actually matters is what you do in college, like devoting time to extracurriculars you care about, connecting with a professor or mentor, and finding jobs and internships that allow you to take what you’re learning in the classroom out into the real world. So rather than spending your time and energy worrying about whether or not you’ll get into a “good” school, focus on how you can be a good student, a good worker, and a good person.