Prestige vs. education

October 24, 2007|By THOMAS SOWELL

High school seniors who want to go to a selective college next fall should already be making arrangements to take the tests they will need before they apply ahead of the deadlines for such schools, which are usually in January or February.

One of the consequences of taking these tests is that if you do well, you may be deluged with literature from colleges and universities all across the country. Some students may feel flattered that Harvard, Yale or MIT seems to be dying to have them apply. But the brutal reality is that the reason for wanting so many youngsters to apply is so that they can be rejected.

Why? Because the prestige ranking of a college or university as a "selective" institution is measured by how small a percentage of its applicants are accepted.

While we are on the subject of reality and prestige, one of the tragic misconceptions of many students and their parents is that you have to go to a prestigious, big-name academic institution to really get ahead and reach the top.

Some students get sunk deep into depression when they are notified in April that they have been rejected by some Ivy League school that they had their heart set on. When they are accepted, some parents go deep into debt to finance the education of their offspring at the college of their dreams.

Seldom is either reaction warranted.

Academic prestige is based mostly on the research achievements of the faculty. Places such as Harvard and Stanford have many professors who are among the leading experts in their respective fields, including some who have won Nobel Prizes. Good for them. But is it good for you, if you are a student at Prestige U.?

Big-name professors are unlikely to be teaching you freshman English or introductory math. Some may not be teaching you anything at all, unless and until you go on to postgraduate study.

In other words, the people who generated the prestige that attracted you to the college may be seen walking about the campus but are less likely to be seen standing in front of your classroom when you begin your college education. Lower-level courses are usually left to be taught by junior faculty members or even graduate students. Yet these courses are often the foundation on which higher-level courses are built.

If you don't really master introductory calculus, physics or economics, you are unlikely to do well in higher-level courses that presuppose that you have a foundation on which they can build. By contrast, at a small college without the prestige of big-name research universities, the introductory courses that provide a foundation for higher courses are more likely to be taught by experienced professors who are teachers more so than researchers.

Maybe that is why graduates of such colleges often go on to do better than the graduates of big-name research universities.

You may never have heard of Harvey Mudd College, but a higher percentage of its graduates go on to get doctoral degrees than do the graduates of Harvard, Yale, Stanford or MIT. So do the graduates of Grinnell, Reed and various other small colleges.

Of the chief executive officers of the 50 largest American corporations surveyed in 2006, only four had Ivy League degrees.

Unfortunately, prestige rankings are so hyped in the media - especially by U.S. News & World Report - that many people think that is how to choose a college.

What you really want is not the "best" college but the college that fits you best. For that, you need in-depth information, not statistical rankings.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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