This month, hundreds of thousands of graduating high school seniors are weighing their college options. For many, it’s an intensely stressful time as they are rejected or waitlisted by schools they aspired to attend and decide where they will spend the next four years of their lives. Unfortunately, most will base those decisions on criteria that don’t actually determine the quality of their education and ignore the criteria that do.
Choosing a college to attend is not like choosing a product to purchase, though students often approach the decision with a consumer’s mindset. There is no Consumer Reports to rely on, leaving students and their parents unduly influenced by a school’s reputation, the glitziness of the admissions materials, the amenities in the student housing, the impressiveness of the recreational facilities, and the quality of the campus tour. None of these bears any relation to the quality of the instruction you will receive as a student.
Even sampling a class or two while visiting a school tells you virtually nothing meaningful. As any teacher knows, there are good days and bad days in every course. What you experience is not generalizable to the course as a whole, much less to the entire school.
The much-followed US News and World Report ratings are misleading at best. They base their rankings on data that may not be reported consistently and on the subjective impressions of college presidents and senior administrators. More fundamentally, the rankings falsely suggest that a single assessment scale is equally applicable to all, whereas students have a range of priorities and values. The selection tool recently introduced by the New York Times, which allows students to search schools by criteria they choose and rank, is far more useful.
But there are metrics that matter, and it’s worth knowing what they are.