What’s Really Important About The College You Attend: Part I

What if picking a college were like buying a car...?

By: Judi Robinovitz | Last Updated: August 17, 2017

If picking a college were like buying a car – which it isn’t, but we’re going to take some poetic license here – there are a number of ways that a careful consumer who’s willing to do the research might approach it.

One of those ways is visiting an automaker’s or dealer’s website and then following links until your fingers drop off. Another is a showroom visit. Okay, we’re getting tired of this analogy and are going stop pretending like there’s anything the salesman can do to put you in that shiny, new college today, because if it’s a really nice college it has to pick you at a later date, so you can’t drive it home today no matter how much you like it.

A third way to research is to visit any of the multiple websites on which students report on their schools. Among them are colleges.niche.com, unigo.com, and studentsreview.com. Others can be found at collegetimes.co/college-review-websites. That avenue will yield the type of anecdotal evidence that you can obtain from a relative or family friend who has attended a school in which you’re interested, and by “anecdotal” we mean “stuff that was true for some students, but maybe not for you.”

However, none of those approaches is likely to yield the desired result until you narrow the field to a manageable set of colleges to research. So how do you that?

First, a shameless plug in the form of a word from our sponsor: JRA Educational Consulting, through JRA Educational Consulting, has helped many students do that every year for many years as part of its “A-to-Z” college planning suite of services that covers everything from school selections through applications and essays — and 95% of those students have gotten admitted to one on their top-choice colleges. (Yeah, we’re very good at what we do, and we’re justifiably proud of it.)

Of course, you can always consult the “annual ratings” of colleges just to make sure that you’re not about to waste your time. The three most well known of the ratings are U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges, Forbes America’s Top Colleges Ranking, and Money’s Best Colleges. Meta Brown, author of Data Mining for Dummies, wrote an article for forbes.com on July 31, 2015 in which she presented this information about what goes into the ranking process for each of those publications:

U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges methods

  • Undergraduate academic reputation
  • Graduation and freshman retention rates
  • Faculty resources
  • Student selectivity
  • Financial resources
  • Alumni giving rate

Forbes America’s Top Colleges Ranking 2015 methods

  • Student satisfaction ratings
  • Freshman retention rates
  • Post-graduate success
  • Student debt
  • Graduation rate
  • Academic success

Money’s Best Colleges methods

  • Graduation rate
  • Peer quality
  • Instructor quality
  • Price of degree, debt and other affordability measures
  • Earnings, career services and market value of alumni skills

High marks on all of those things sound laudable, but how much do they really matter, which of them actually matters the most while a student’s in school and thereafter, and does anything else matter even more? Turns out that it all depends on how you define “matter.”

Lots of students want degrees because the good jobs and higher pay that accompany degrees matter to them. So, it’s interesting that of the three ranking firms discussed, only Money includes earnings and market value of alumni skills among their criteria. However, that makes some sense, because Money’s thrust is – well – money. And it makes sense that the other two don’t include it among their criteria because there’s a body of evidence that indicates that future earnings might depend at least as much on the student – and maybe more – as it does on the school that student attends.

In their 1999 report for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger wrote that the findings of their research

…cast doubt on the view that school selectivity, as measured by the average SAT score of the freshmen who attend a college, is an important determinant of students' subsequent incomes. Students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students who were accepted and rejected by comparable schools but attended less selective colleges.

And Dale and Krueger say that’s in perfect concert with the conclusion of Shane Hunt in an unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation for Yale University in 1963. In what Dale and Krueger refer to as “seminal research,” Hunt wrote,

The C student from Princeton earns more than the A student from Podunk not mainly because he has the prestige of a Princeton degree, but merely because he is abler. The golden touch is possessed not by the Ivy League College, but by its students.

However, Dale and Krueger also found that “students who attend colleges with higher average tuition costs tend to earn higher incomes years later.” So, if it’s income after graduation that you think will matter most to you, it’s pretty clear that higher tuition trumps average SAT scores, all other factors being equal.

But be careful about deciding now that higher income is what will matter to you most after you graduate: You’d have to be “media-dead” not to know that a sizable number of celebrities with astronomically high incomes are so miserable that they end up being drunks and/or drug addicts. And remember Edwin Arlington Robinson’s fictional Richard Cory – from the poem of the same name – who was admired by all and “was rich — yes, richer than a king — And…one calm summer night, went home and put a bullet through his head.”

So what should matter most?

How about, after you graduate, your engagement in your employment and your assessments of your well-being, including your satisfaction with your relationships, your physical health, your community, your economic situation, and your sense of purpose? Aren’t those exactly the types of things that could have convinced Hamlet to come down on the “To be” side of the “To be or not to be” question and might have similarly swayed Richard Cory to never pick up that gun.

But how could you possibly know how you’re going to feel about those things after you graduate, and what does that have to do with the college that you attend?

We’ll address those questions and give you some surprising answers in Part II of What’s Really Important About The College You Attend, so stay tuned.

Topics: College Planning


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