College-bound applicants confront a morass of publications listing their versions of the best colleges. Some popular ones are U.S. News & World Report, Washington Monthly, Forbes, USA Today and The Princeton Review. The once simple process of looking at one list has turned into a daunting task of determining which list to consider, what criteria form the basis for every list and how much weight to give a particular list in an overall college application process.
Jay Mathews, an education columnist and blogger for The Washington Post, provided guidance on the subject. During his long-standing career at The Washington Post, Mathews also authored seven books, including a New York Times best seller and another well-known book “Harvard Schmarvard:Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That Is Best for You.” Mathews has won several awards for education writing, including the Upton Sinclair award for being “a beacon of light in the realm of education.” The following text is not a verbatim transcript and has been edited for space.
Q. In general, what do you think of ranking systems for colleges?
A. It is better having ranking systems than not having them at all. In 1983, before the first ranking system was published by U.S. News & World Report, high school students and their parents had no simple list of colleges to consider during the application process. There was a lot of confusion about which colleges to consider. There are complaints that the numbers in ranking lists don’t get to the heart of these colleges and that’s all true, but it is better than nothing.
Q. What rank would you give the several popular ranking systems and why?
A. I ranked the top dozen or so college guides in Slate magazine and that article will tell you what I thought then. It is the same as what I think today.
The following list includes the names of the titles or periodicals from Mathews’ ranking in Slate magazine:
1. Princeton Review “The Best 361 Colleges”
2. Kaplan “The Unofficial, Biased Guide to the 331 Most Interesting Colleges”
3. “Fiske Guide to Colleges”
4. “Choosing the Right College”
5. “Barron’s Profiles of America’s Colleges”
6. U.S. News & World Report “Ultimate College Guide”
7. “The College Board College Handbook”
8. “Peterson’s Four-Year Colleges”
9. “The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges”
Q. Are there particular criteria that you think are not included in the top ranking systems and should be included?
A. One is offered by the National Survey of Student Engagement and assesses student participation in activities we know are good for learning, such as more undergraduate research or more contact with professors outside of class or more short essay writing assignments. The other is called the Collegiate Learning Assessment and tests students twice, as freshmen and seniors.
Q. Do you think future success depends on the school a student attends?
A. My basic bias here is it doesn’t really matter where you go to college. Whatever ranking system a college student uses has to appeal to that student, and there is no particular ranking system that is going to appeal or respond to every student’s needs. The point to be made about colleges is that those ranking the highest are most selective – the more kids they reject, the higher the colleges are ranked. That doesn’t tell you anything useful necessarily.
The President’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy Alan B. Kruger, an economist from Princeton University, wrote what I think is the crucial paper about this topic and found that 20 years after graduation, students who didn’t go to selective schools [but who had been admitted] were making just as much money as students who did go to selective colleges.
Another conclusion was that the selective colleges look good because they have their pick of students who possess the strongest character traits – for example, persistence, charm and humor – that tend to produce success in life. But the character traits matter and not the college; the college adds no additional value because the student does just as well.
That is why college rankings don’t really tell us much. The most useful thing a college ranking can do is to group students by SAT scores so that a student could look at all of the colleges and determine quickly whether he or she falls within the ranges.
Q. In addition to relying on ranking systems that provide SAT scores, what else would you suggest parents and students consider?
A. I think the most useful thing, if you are looking for a college, is to ask yourself whether you have a great academic interest and whether you know your intended major. If so, then you should look at the published guides that address those specific academic interests and call people in those fields to ask their advice on colleges.
For example, in the case of journalism, the advice may be that the child should go to a college that is large enough to have not only a daily newspaper, but also a pretty good one.
Or, and I think this is important, if your child has a special interest in an extracurricular activity such as wanting to get involved in the presidential election or a poetry group, then by looking at guides you can find out about which schools have an opportunity for something like that and go to the college that emphasizes those activities.
Q. What do you suggest students do who are undecided about a potential career path?
A. In that case, they sort of have to go with their gut. We often make fun of kids who fall in love with the school because of the campus appearance or because of the guide that took them around campus. That may seem trivial and emotional, but my feeling is you’ve got nothing but your gut. So if you don’t have anything else guiding you except for the look and feel of the place, go with it.
The other thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t sweat where you first go to college too much because, if you don’t like it, you can go somewhere else. Transferring is not that difficult to do. And we now have a transfer student in the White House, which shows you that this will not hurt your long-term prospects.