College choices: All that's Ivy is not gold

Measure: No studies show a correlation between prestige of a school and success in life.

May 12, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS across the nation have just concluded a hard-fought contest - the college entrance race. For many, victory is acceptance into a college high on the prestige list, a hierarchy established by peers and parents, by U.S. News and World Report's rankings of top schools, by high school and other counselors eager to add a few Ivy League acceptances to their records. Defeat is a mailbox of rejection letters, a forced march to a lower-ranked, less prestigious school.

But what exactly is such a victory worth? And what is the cost of defeat?

It's hard to say that this contest has any meaning. There are no studies - academic or anecdotal - that indicate a correlation between the ranking or prestige of an undergraduate college and success in later life, whether measured in financial, emotional or spiritual terms.

In some ways, the focus on the few top schools seems a throwback to an earlier age when major institutions of the country were all on the East Coast and in the hands of a properly credentialed elite.

That is certainly no longer the case. And yet, every year tens of thousands of high school seniors clamor for the precious spaces in the schools deemed to be at the top of the heap.

Morton O. Schapiro, an economist who studies higher education and is president of Williams College, a top-of-the-heap school, says that the top students in the country are going to a smaller and smaller number of schools.

In a recent book on financial aid, Schapiro and co-author Michael S. McPherson, president of Macalester College in Minnesota, noted that the bulk of National Merit semifinalists who attended 150 colleges 20 years ago now are concentrated in 40 colleges.

"It's like a lot of other product markets, there's a great interest in perceived quality," Schapiro says. "BMW is doing well, but Oldsmobile goes out of business. Ritz Carlton is fine, but Howard Johnson is bankrupt. There's a flight toward perceived quality."

Part of the reason, he says, is that the marketplace is nat- ional. In decades past, the prestige college game was played mainly among prep schools in the Northeast. Other students tended to stay closer to home, supporting their local schools. Now the whole country gets involved.

"There's a lot of hype involved," says Martha O'Connell, dean of admissions at Western Maryland College. "It's not unlike the way Americans approach anything; they clamor to go toward the brand names people recognize. It's not the most positive thing for higher education. Students are choosing schools that might not be the best fit for them so their parents can drop its name at a cocktail party. That's not the way to choose colleges."

Freeman A. Hrabowski Jr., who knows that the school where he is president - the University of Maryland, Baltimore County - will probably never rank in the U.S. News and World Report top ten list, says students and their parents should be focusing on outcomes: What does your degree get you, and at what cost?

Hrabowski contends that many top high school students get crushed in the highly competitive atmosphere of prestige schools and never reach their potential.

He can point to the fact that almost all of those who accept UMBC's Meyerhoff scholarships remain in their science-oriented majors while only half of those who turn down the scholarship, usually for a bigger-name school, stay in those difficult fields.

"Parents need to look at the philosophy the institutions have about undergraduate education," Hrabowski says. "Some places say, `We don't spoon-feed kids.' ... . They make it very clear you are on your own, that it's prestigious to be here, you are smart, you should be able to make it on your own. Our experience is that smarter students lead more complicated lives, and so face more challenges. Many students need special support, especially in the freshman year."

Another idea

Better, he argues, to go to a UMBC, or perhaps a smaller, nurturing liberal arts college, and worry about the prestige name for graduate school.

"People get focused on going to the biggest name regardless of whether the institution meets the needs of that child," Hrabowski says. "What we are doing is showing where students go when they leave here - Duke, Stanford, Oxford, Harvard."

David W. Breneman, dean of the school of education at the University of Virginia, says Hrabowski has a point.

"Unless you are totally self-directed at 17 or 18 years of age, know exactly what you want and are very aggressive, you can get lost," he says of some of the large prestigious research universities.

Maynard Mack, who heads the honors program at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that when he was in the English department at Harvard University, he read all of the applications for graduate school.

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