The Real Problem With College Admissions: It's Not the Rankings

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The true crisis in college admissions isn't overly motivated parents or even analytical rankings of elite schools. It's too little motivation among parents and students combined with insufficient information.

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This October, hundreds of thousands of American parents will spend the month nagging their 17- and 18-year old children to finish their college essays and double-/triple-quadruple-check their basic applications. To an outsider, this might look like madness, yet there's method to it. A private four-year university can cost more than $160,000, enough to buy eight Toyota Camrys. In an economy with an uncertain recovery path, college pays off more than ever. All the more reason for parents to assess (and, yes, obsess over) their decision.

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If you see trend stories on these families in national newspapers and magazines, you'll read that the parents are too motivated (e.g.: the "helicopter parent") and the information is overly analytical (e.g.: the dreaded US News and World Report rankings). But in a country where seven out of ten 30-year olds don't have a college degree and most students drop out of school, the real problem isn't motivated parents and ranked information. Instead, it is too little motivation and too little information altogether, as Washington Monthly has demonstrated in their wonderful annual college issue.

HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU HATE COLLEGE RANKINGS?




We are right to worry about rankings and the "prestige racket" at our finest universities. But maybe we shouldn't worry as much as we do.

Of course there are sharp differences between Harvard University and the University of Michigan that rankings can blur. The same student won't necessarily be happy and successful at both places. It probably makes as much sense to rank these schools for the typical student, without knowing his strengths and interests, as it does for a store to rank its shirts for a typical male shopper without knowing his size and complexion.

College rankings aren't the monster. They're gnats on the back of the monster.

But in the long run, which elite college you attend just isn't all that important. Longitudinal studies show that the success of the country's smartest students depends more on where they apply than where they attend. The country's best schools are all world-class, and the 100,000 new students that they matriculate each year have a relatively equal shot at their own definitions of success.

The bottom line is that college rankings aren't the monster here.They're gnats on the back of a monster. After all, if you pay attention to college rankings, you're already doing something rare. You're caring enough about college to consult a ranking!

That makes you pretty elite, from the start. Thirty percent of 18-year olds don't graduate from high school on time. Of those who graduate, half will drop of out of college. Of those who enroll, only nine percent will start at an institution that admits less than half its applicants. Only three percent will attend a school with an admission rate below one-third. The admissions rate at Harvard is six percent. 

There is the US News ranking problem. And there is a college crisis. There's a big difference. Here is the breakdown of 21-year olds in 2009. Sixty percent aren't in college. Twenty percent didn't graduate from high school. One percent is going to the kind of schools that make headlines in rankings.

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Graph of 21-year olds according to BLS survey data. BLS;Kevin Carey

WHY COLLEGE STILL MATTERS

Why should we care that people go to college? Because in a world of immense risk, higher education might be the last slamdunk bet. Seven of the ten fastest growing jobs in the next 10 years require a bachelor's degree or higher. Each additional level of education correlates with lower unemployment rates and higher earnings. Employment for workers with Masters, professional, or associates degrees are expected to grow almost twice as fast as the overall job market in the next decade. The benefits of college are quite clear.

But it's not enough to say that college pays off. We need to find ways to make this argument stick in every city, suburb and rural town. To do that, we need three kinds of better information. First, we need better information about students. A student's achievement should be digitized so that high schools and colleges can target those who are most likely to succeed in their programs. Second, we need better information about the college application process. Students and families need to benchmark achievement against a roadmap of success. If a kid needs to take Trigonometry before he turns 16 to be on pace to attend the community college his parents are gunning for, that benchmark should be made clear. Third, we need better information about schools. Applicants need to know where they fit, where their money might go furthest, where debt is worth it, and how much debt they can expect to have when they've graduated.

Finally, since all the information in the world doesn't matter unless somebody reads it, we need new rules to aggressively promote the sharing of all of this information with parents, teachers, families and students. Consider a math-oriented student in an inner-city. He's choosing between a nearby community college with a 90 percent drop-out rate and a slightly farther away school with a 50 percent drop-out rate (plus a 70 percent graduation rate for local math majors). If all he knows it the distance between his house and the school, he could make the wrong choice. That is the kind of decision where better information can make all the difference in a young life.

AN ATLANTIC SPECIAL REPORT

For the next week, the Atlantic Business Channel is running a special report on college and college admissions. On tap we have an interview with Edward Fiske, the author of the Fiske Guide to Colleges, the number one college guide in the country; an interview with Craig Powell, the founder of ConnectEDU, a so-called "Match.com for college admissions"; essays from education experts on ways to improve admissions and reduce tuition; and a fresh look at our rankings culture that tricks students into thinking there is such thing as a "best" university. We hope you'll come back to read more.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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