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

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.

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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

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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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