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In Search of the Best University

April 8th, 2013 by dfarish

We Americans are a funny lot. Whether because of our heritage as a nation born through revolution and blessed with size and an abundance of natural resources, or because of our fascination with winning, as we do in athletics, we seem inordinately fond of defining, and being associated with, “the best.” Tonight and tomorrow night, respectively, we will determine “the best” men’s and women’s collegiate basketball teams in the country, and ice hockey will soon follow. We’ll get to baseball in late spring, and next January it will be time to declare “the best” college football team.

This fascination with determining “the best” carries over to colleges and universities themselves. Shouldn’t we urge our children to attend “the best” college or university – or at least “the best” institution that will accept him or her? Why settle for second best? We want “the best!”

There are two problems. First, regarding colleges, there is a certain arbitrariness when it comes to determining “the best.” Is it the one with the biggest endowment? The biggest endowment per student? The winningest athletics program? The lowest student to faculty ratio? The most publications per faculty member? The largest number of applications? The lowest percentage of acceptances from the applicant pool? The highest graduation rate? The highest average salary of its alumni? The most expensive? The most affordable? All of the above?

Second, there are a lot more students trying to get into “the best” college than there are available seats – so that presumably means a lot of disappointed students. What happens to them if they are obliged to attend the second best institution in the country – or, the horror! – the lower-tier institution that accepted them? Do those consequences presage a life of failure?

Every year, a small group of publications, led by U.S News & World Report (a magazine no longer publishing a print edition), vie for the attention of the college-bound students and their families by providing rankings of institutions of higher learning. In the case of U.S. News, most of the ranking criteria are input-based: SAT or ACT scores of the entering class; the average high school rank; courses with enrollments smaller than 20; student to faculty ratio; percentage of alumni who contribute to the college, and so on. “Reputation,” as determined by polling presidents and admissions directors, is a major criterion, even though few presidents or admissions directors know very much about other colleges – except, of course, for their reputations! So the very fact that a given college is ranked highly one year is a strong predictor that it will be ranked highly the next year. Reputations take a long time to build, and, generally, even longer to decline.

In essence, a college that has the good fortune to be popular is able to be more selective, in terms of offering admission to a smaller fraction of its applicant pool. Being selective means that the college will enroll more high-achieving students, and having many high-achieving students builds the reputation of the college. A good reputation means than even more students will apply the next year, thus further elevating the reputation of the school.

It’s all reminiscent of how we sometimes choose restaurants: If the parking lot is full, it must mean the place is popular, and if it’s popular, then the food must be good, and if the food is good, then that’s where we want to go – even if we have to wait 45 minutes for a table. The place next door might be just as good, and a table might be available immediately – but we’ll allow the decisions of others to influence our choice, even if it is inconvenient to do so. Better to wait than to be wrong.

But suppose the restaurant specializes in sushi, and we don’t like sushi. Are we ready to eat food we don’t like just so that we can say we ate in “the best” restaurant?

Most of us wouldn’t actually do that – and yet that’s exactly how many students select a college. Too many prospective students (and their families) are focused on getting into “the best” college, as defined in the abstract, and not on being admitted to the college that best fits their needs.

There is a lovely illustration of this point in an op-ed in the March 20 edition of The New York Times (“The Ivy League Was Another Planet”). Responding from a personal perspective to the David Leonhardt column I referenced in last week’s blog post, the author speaks of her experience as a high-achieving, low-income high school student in rural Nevada. Neither she nor another such student from her high school was recruited by a top college, and both ended up enrolling in the University of Nevada, Reno (ranked a relatively dismal 189th nationally by U.S. News).

These two students represent the danger David Leonhardt warned us about: “The choice [of college] frequently has major consequences. The colleges that most low-income students attend have fewer resources and lower graduation rates than selective colleges, and many students who attend a local college do not graduate. Those who do graduate can miss out on the career opportunities that top colleges offer.”

Oh, my! These two students appear doomed – and through no fault of their own. If only a top college had recruited them, and given them their one chance at a successful and satisfying life. But, no! They entered the University of Nevada, Reno, and… became successful! The author’s male friend graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, earned a Ph.D. from Purdue, and is now a National Research Council postdoctoral fellow. Following her graduation, the author earned her MFA from Ohio State University, and is now a prize-winning writer on the faculty of Bucknell University.

Pretty good results from having attended a university that is a long way from “the best.”

So what’s the point? The point is that what students should do is to select a college that is “the best” for them. Some students thrive best in a small school setting, where they can receive individualized attention. Others want the bustle of an urban campus. Some want to compete with students who are at least their intellectual equal. Others, with special needs, require a very supportive environment. Some want to be in residence. Others need, for various reasons, to stay close to their families.

The beauty of the American system of higher education is that it permits matching the needs and interests of a given student with the specialized offerings and values of a particular college. And even if a student is obliged, for financial reasons, to make do with the one college that is within commuting distance, he or she can still be successful in life.

“Best,” like “beauty,” is in the eye of the beholder.