When It Comes to Colleges, the Biggest Name Doesn't Always Mean the Best Fit

What’s in a Ranking?

When the U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) released its much-anticipated annual college and university rankings in September, there weren’t many big surprises. In fact, what is remarkable about this year’s rankings is just how consistent they are with those from recent history. 

For the sixth consecutive year, Princeton tops the list of “national universities”; Williams takes the top spot among liberal arts colleges for the 14th year in a row; and the University of California, Berkeley keeps its grips on the top public university spot for the 19th straight year. In the midst of applications season, as millions of high school students around the globe look to these rankings for guidance, it’s worth asking the question: what exactly makes these schools so exceptional, year after year?

To answer that question, let’s look at USNWR’s methodology. The publication ranks schools based on seven weighted criteria designed to measure “academic quality”: 

  1. Graduation and retention rates (22.5%), which measures what percentage of the first-year student body stays on for a sophomore year and eventually graduates. 
  2. Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5%), based on the opinions of university administrators and high school guidance counselors. 
  3. Faculty resources (20%), a measurement including class size, faculty salary, the degrees earned by faculty, student-faculty ratios, and proportion of full-time faculty. 
  4. Student selectivity (12.5%), including SAT and ACT scores of admitted students, the number of students who graduated at or near the top of their high school classes, acceptance rates. 
  5. Financial resources (10%), measuring the average spending the university devotes to each student. 
  6. Graduation rate performance (7.5%), the percentage of students who graduated as compared to USNWR’s projections. 
  7. Alumni giving rate (5%), the percentage of alumni that donated money to their alma maters. 

While all of these criteria are useful factors in measuring the integrity and prestige of colleges and universities, what’s left out—indeed, what would be nearly impossible to measure—is the quality of education that you, prospective college student, will benefit from over the next four years. 

What’s absent in any sweeping ranking system like the USNWR is the question of fit. Truly, the only measure that matters in choosing a school is where you will thrive—where you will find your passion, your peers, and the beginnings of not only your career but life as an adult. This is a question that no ranking system can answer for you.

What’s in a Name?

While prestigious names like Princeton, Williams, and UC, Berkeley have the built-in advantages of name recognition, such institutions are not necessarily the right fit for most students, even some of the “best and brightest.” According to William Deresiewicz, former professor at Yale University and the best-selling author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014), the best education for most students will not come from within the hallowed halls of the Ivy League. 

“Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think,” Deresiewicz explains, “but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions.” In other words, while many of the top-ranked schools in the country do help prepare students for professional life beyond college (especially through name recognition), they’re not always the best places to foster genuine knowledge and understanding—key, transferrable skills not only for developing the life of the mind, but for navigating the ever-changing global economy and job market of the 21st century.  

But aren’t the top schools supposed to be the most rigorous? According to Deresiewicz, not necessarily: “There are exceptions, of course, but professors and students have largely entered into what one observer called a ‘nonaggression pact.’ Students are regarded by the institution as ‘customers,’ people to be pandered to instead of challenged.” As Deresiewicz explains, admission into the Ivy League and similarly prestigious universities is a reward for a job-well-done in high school, but it does not necessarily translate into the best college education.

To understand why this is so, it’s important to understand who makes up the faculty at the top universities—at the likes of Princeton and Harvard, Stanford and the University of Chicago. The majority of professors at these institutions are hired and promoted for their research and hardly (often not at all) for their teaching. As a result, the highest achieving professors are often not the best teachers, since they are usually not incentivized to spend much time on their classes and their students. As Deresiewicz explains, “the profession’s whole incentive structure is biased against teaching, and the more prestigious the school, the stronger the bias is likely to be. The result is higher marks for shoddier work.”

Finding the Right Fit

If you’re interested in getting the very best education possible, chances are you won’t find it at the very top of the USNWR rankings. You’re more likely to find it in what Deresiewicz calls the “second tier—not second-rate—colleges” such as Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, and Mount Holyoke, where teaching plays a central role in hiring and promoting professors. Uninterested in competing with the Ivies for points on the ranking systems, these liberal arts schools are more focused on educating students than on padding admissions statistics and their endowments. 

You might also find your ideal education at a quality public university, from any of the University of California and California State campuses to the University of Michigan, University of Texas, or University of Maryland, to name a few. These schools often lose rankings points for having large class sizes, but such schools often feature a more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse student body. As most college graduates will tell you, you will learn just as much from your peers as you will from your professors. A student body made up of a diverse range of life experiences and perspectives would make for an invaluable contribution to your intellectual and personal growth. 

When deciding on which school to choose, it’s important to look beyond the rankings. What will I study? Which schools are particularly suited to my major? Which school’s faculty will help me learn most? Which school’s student body will help me grow? These are questions that you can only begin to answer by visiting campuses, speaking to alumni in person and online, and looking inside yourself to get a better sense of where and what you’ll want to be in four years.

In other words, finding the best fit means finding your own criteria for “academic quality.” 


Want to learn more? Sources I consulted in writing this piece include:

Nick Anderson, “U.S. News college rankings: Princeton, Williams and UC-Berkeley at the top, again” (Sept. 13, 2016)

Frank Bruni, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (2015), excerpted here; see a talk by Bruni here

William Deresiewicz, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” (2014)

William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014)

Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities, and has taught writing and critical reading at Elite of Los Angeles since 2010.