With college choice, focus on the fit, not the rank

March 21, 2007|By Martha O'Connell

If you had to choose a spouse or partner for life, would you like to use a publication ranking them by income, IQ scores and reputation as reported by others who have never met the person? I often ask this question as I speak to college-bound students and their families, and after the laughter, we discuss the factors that are important in searching for the right college for each student.

As a culture, we love consulting consumer guidebooks and lists for a shortcut method to choosing electronics and cars. The college search, however, requires a more thoughtful, personal and time-consuming approach. It can't be reduced to rankings with numerical values when it requires starting with who the individual student is and why he or she is going to college, the student's needs and desires, learning styles and interests. This self-inventory is the start for finding colleges that fit for the individual, instead of starting with the assumption that only the top 20 on the U.S. News & World Report list have any value.

Another flaw in the rankings is that they tout the entering class statistics rather than focusing on what happens during the four years those students are enrolled. Veteran college counselor Loren Pope has said that choosing colleges based on the entering statistics of the freshmen class is like choosing a hospital based on the health of those in the emergency room. It's the treatment that really matters - in the case of college, what happens between the first year and graduation.

How do you choose a college without using rankings? Visit the National Survey of Student Engagement Web site and read the section on "Choosing a College: Are You Asking the Right Questions?" "How often do faculty meet students outside of class?" "How much writing and how many presentations are required?" "How much time do students devote to co-curricular activities?" These questions and others like them get at the heart of what is important for each student. They also focus on questions pertinent to student outcomes rather than assuming that the rankings number got that right.

The president of Sarah Lawrence College and others are correct in pointing out the flaws (at best) and sham (at worst) of U.S. News' report on "America's Best Colleges," but the ranking guide is not going away soon - it's a big seller.

But the importance of such reports in the college search process can certainly be diminished if students, parents and counselors focus on fit rather than name recognition. Students are very good at naming the people in their lives, as well as famous people, who are successful and happy, but usually don't know where (or even whether) these people went to college. I challenge them to find out, and they most often report that they were surprised to learn how many had gone to lesser-known or "lower-ranked" colleges.

If I could wave a magic wand this spring, I would make the rankings go away. Lacking magical powers, I'll ask for the next best thing: a thoughtful, student-centered college search process that ends with a good fit for each student and allows the students, their families and their school counselors to celebrate the choice, regardless of where it ranks on any list.

Martha O'Connell, former vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions at McDaniel College, is executive director of the nonprofit Colleges That Change Lives. Her e-mail is marty.oconnell@ctcl.com.

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