Academics Flunk College Rankings: It’s The Fit Not the Label that Counts
Washington and Lee University’s president is furious with college rankings – I think largely due to the Princeton Review, which ranked his school as one of the nation’s finest party schools.
President Thomas Burish’s anger drove him to pen a defense of Washington and Lee this summer and to critique the national rankings in a brochure entitled, Straight Talk. College Ranking Services: How Useful Are They?
Whether Washington and Lee is the great party school that the Princeton Review says it is, or whether it’s “widely respected as one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges” as Burish says it is, is of little matter to me.
What’s of importance is that students and parents get a handle on the college ranking game, and for this we have Burish and the Princeton Review to thank.
A terrific high school college counselor, Brad MacGowan, who works at Newton North High School in Massachusetts, noted years ago that besides attempting to quantify the unquantifiable, rankings confused selectivity with quality.
It was MacGowan who wrote that college rankings drove students to look at the label rather than the fit; a sure-fire recipe for disappointment.
“If a student is interested in physical therapy and Harvard is the number one school, it’s not your number one school, because they don’t have physical therapy,” Mike Konopski, director of admissions at Niagara University, said the other day.
“I’m concerned about how much weight those rankings are given by a prospective student and his family. Sure you can look at a ranking, but that’s only one small tool in the college search process. The fit is what’s most important.”
Christian Amport, a young Guilford architect, recalled freshmen orientation at Carnegie Mellon not too long ago. He was excited. The Pittsburgh school’s architectural program had been ranked number one in the nation.
At freshmen orientation Amport discovered he was very different from his classmates. Many had been working since they were 15 at what they wanted to accomplish professionally. They were hyper-focused, said Amport, a gifted student, who wanted to do more than study architecture, and who wasn’t rearing to burn the midnight oil.
Carnegie Mellon, according to this student, isn’t about fun. It’s about learning, learning, learning, and learning at the most demanding levels.
“The professors expected that everyone was going to be competing on the highest level. It’s like going through Marine Corps training,” said Amport, who has high regard for the Pittsburgh school, but who found himself in a program that made it difficult to take a breath or to explore courses outside of his major.
Amport went on to graduate from the University of Vermont in 2003 where he majored in architecture and minored in philosophy.
So the smart thing to do is to review the rankings, but spend most of your time visiting schools and trying to connect with students at those institutions.
A short visit to the school cafeteria, a couple of classes, a look at the school newspaper and a couple hours at a dorm will not do it. Take your time to find students at the schools you’re interested in attending and spend some electronic time together.
You can call a school’s admission’s office and ask to communicate electronically with some sophomores. Freshmen won’t know enough so speak with students who have made it through their freshmen year. They’ll be able to tell you just what the academic and social culture is like.
College publications, national rankings, books on colleges are all good starts, but nothing replaces visiting a school and getting to know some students there.
What follows is a list of ideas for school visits that MacGowan and his colleagues at Newton North High School have compiled:
If interviews are offered:
If you attend a class, ask yourself:
Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at firstname.lastname@example.org