Off to the Races: Musings on the University Rankings system

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Off to the Races: Musings on the University Rankings system

And we are off to the races again…. The college application cycle Fall 2022 has started.  We spend a lot of time having students identify which universities they want to go to, and inevitably, students and their parents turn to the university rankings when making decisions about where to apply.   In some ways, this is fine:  our brains are wired to like compartmentalization.   Who doesn’t love a good list?  It helps us to make sense of the world.  Lists, for example, help us keep our weekly grocery spend within budget.  Santa likes making a list too.   Schools like to list their university placements.  I think we can all agree that lists are not bad.   

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For parents who are about to make a significant financial investment in their child’s future, you want to know that the college degree you are paying for will be worth it.   Ask a parent or a secondary student if Harvard is worth it and you will likely get a solid Yes.  Ask future employers and we are likely to get a very different answer – which is likely to be – not really.  “Bam!” … that list we were all fixating on 4 years ago no longer matters.  Note that our time in employment is significantly longer than our time in schooling.…..nowhere on any “future skills of the workplace” or modern job advertisement is there a category listed as Ivy League or Oxford graduate required or preferred – apart from the very first job right out of college, practically no one is going to ask you where you went to school in a job interview (and if they do, they are likely trying to gauge your socio-economic status, and you may want to rethink if you really want to work there).  Employers want to know about a particular skill set, your ability to get along with others and your ability to solve problems.     

My advice on the college rankings?  look at them but understand their methodology and the role that bias and self-fulfilling prophecies can play in how we value certain things (example:  everyone believes that …. insert name of top 10 school…. is a great school, but how are we measuring that?  Because it gives us status?  What is status really? What is the link between status and success, really?  And does anyone dare  question the status of …. insert same top 10 school……?) 

There are plenty of robust research universities that educate students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds who go on to do great things in the workplace, people who make an impact in their communities.  There are plenty of great regional schools who offer excellent and impactful degrees, or who have special expertise in any given area.   Look at the value added that the university will provide:  do employers visit the university, does the university require internships for students?  What is the cost/benefit to my child?  Will my child fit in at the school?    I’ll admit, one university list I do really like is the “Best Bang for Your Buck” university lists:  the schools with the best outcomes at the lowest prices.  

Those rankings?   Look well beyond the Top 10 or 20 and look at your pocketbook!  Going back to our analogy of off to the races.   Our bias leads us to “bet” on the winning horse without too much effort:  but beware, the same horse doesn’t keep winning every time.    The next winning horse may very well have gotten there by grit and not pedigree.