Originally Published in Hindustan Times Education
A few weeks ago US News and World Report released their college rankings for 2014. Most of the media coverage of this dubious event has concluded that not much has changed, especially among the top 10 colleges. This is important to Indian students for whom US News is sometimes treated as a sacred text. Indian applicants focus is so narrowed on the top 10 (maybe 20) ranked colleges that its almost impossible to convince them to consider applying anywhere else. This is often blamed on a ‘status conscious’ or ‘brand obsessed’ perspective. While this tendency is exaggerated, I offer some reasons why even more supposed practical reasons for sticking with the top 20 are unfounded.
The most obvious reason for strict adherence to college rankings is understandable – education abroad is expensive and families want a solid return on their investment. A student should attend a college where her earning potential after college is the highest. But when it comes to jobs, the top colleges are not necessarily the darlings of industry. In fact in a recent column by Alison Singh, a US based lawyer and writer, she cited a Wall Street Journal study in which recuriters were asked which colleges prepare students best for satisfying, well paid jobs with growth potential. Most of the colleges on the list were large public institutions and Cornell was the only US News top 20 college included (it should be noted that India’s favorite non-top 20 made it to the list – Carnegie Mellon).
Besides return on investment, Indian applicants also believe is important to study at top 20 ranked US News college because it will ease their way into top graduate programs such as Harvard Business School or Yale Law or Duke Medicine or Stanford Engineering. But widely available data for these graduate programs shows that they admit students with undergraduate degrees from a broad range of colleges. In fact if you compare rankings to rankings, Business Week’s top 20 MBA feeder school rankings and US New’s top 20 national universities have only 5 colleges in common (MIT, Penn, Wash U, Cornell, Notre Dame). It seems attending Boston College makes you more likely to end up in business school than if you go to Harvard (according to these rankings). That is, obviously not to say that you cannot go to business school if you attend Harvard, rather that you are just as likely to attend a great business school if you attend a lower ranked college.
Of course I’m being hard on the applicants that are stuck on the top 20. But I don’t mean to be, I mean to make the broader point that sticking to any list (even if it the top 100) is a mistake when it comes to applying to college, especially in the US. Every one of the 2000+ four year colleges in the US is unique and has a special ethos, culture and mission. I wish that each applicant would choose their college based on where these features fit into they want from their college experience, rather than what they think (based on rankings) the college will do for them.
I have seen students go to Ivy League colleges and get very little out of it as they pined for home and longed to once again be a big fish in a small pond. And I have seen students go to The University of Richmond and take advantage of every opportunity presented to them, build their resumes through service and extracurricular learning and take hold of opportunities they could have never imagined. At the end of four years, whose resume will impress a recruiter? It’s not what you get out of college that makes you who you are after four years, it’s what you put in.