Does College Prestige Matter?

So often kids want to get into the best, most prestigious college they can, but is that really what's important in higher ed?

Dan Edmonds (VP of Research & Development at Noodle) talks about when prestige matters and when it's over-valued during a student's college search.

One of the first questions I ask my clients is some variation on "what's your dream school?" It's a useful question both for setting goals, and for seeing how realistic those goals are. Since I'm often asking this of rising juniors, it's not at all uncommon for their answer not to be terribly specific; in fact, far and away the most common answer I get is "the best school I can get into."

Which, of course, leads to an interesting question: what exactly do we mean by "best school?"

For a lot of students, "best" means "most prestigious." They want the name brand school. Think top 25 US News and World Report. Ivy or "Ivy equivalent." Top rank liberal arts college. More prestigious equals better in the calculus of many high school juniors (and many of their parents). But is that really the case? Ultimately, that depends on your view of the purpose of a university education, and what you hope to get out of it.

If you view a college degree as a credential necessary to get a high-paying job, then there's little question that you should strongly consider attending the most prestigious college you can get into (though you should do enough research to be sure it's also an environment you'll be happy in!). As recently detailed in the New York Times, the students from more prestigious colleges find that the doors to high paying jobs open far more easily. In fact, recruiters at many of the most competitive companies strongly prefer graduates from a short list of highly regarded universities, sometimes to the exclusion of all other candidates, for their entry-level positions.

Once you enter into the workforce, your work experience quickly outstrips your education in terms of importance on your resume, but for that first job out of college, the prestige of your degree can have a major impact. With the price of college rising so much faster than inflation, this kind of cost-benefit analysis to education becomes increasingly important, especially if you'll be coming out of the other end of the college process heavily burdened with student loans.

None of this is to say that if you attend a less well-known university, you doom your chances in the job market. You simply put yourself at a competitive disadvantage for some jobs. For example, a contact of mine who does recruiting in the financial services industry laid it out to me very plainly: if your degree is from an Ivy or "Ivy equivalent" (schools such as Duke, Stanford, Wash U, and Johns Hopkins, to name a few), your application will be considered if you have a 3.3 GPA or better. If you're from a school that's not on their short list, you need at least a 3.9 GPA to get your application looked at. With hundreds of applicants for each position, she needs easy methods to winnow out a lot of candidates, and while she admits that this system no doubt leads to the exclusion of some wonderful candidates, her department simply doesn't have time to adequately evaluate the huge pile of resumes sent its way.

I come from a different school of thought for education, one that is, perhaps, a bit naive and idealistic, but I wouldn't feel right writing about prestige without addressing it. To me, the goal of education isn't future employment; it's exploring your interests (and the world). It's following your passions (and finding new ones). It's developing your critical thinking skills. It's exposing yourself to new ideas.

If you share my perspective, prestige matters only insofar as it's often a marker of high quality education. Can you get a great education at name brand schools? Absolutely. (And, for the sake of full disclosure, I went to Washington University in Saint Louis, which has for decades been an inhabitant of most top 25 university lists). But you can also get a high quality education at less prestigious universities, especially if you look into Honors Colleges, which often function like highly selective, small liberal arts colleges in the midst of much larger (but less prestigious) universities.

Less well-known universities can have big benefits for motivated students; one of the biggest complaints you'll hear at top schools is that the best faculty rarely (if ever) teach undergrad students (and even when they do, the classes are nearly impossible to get into). At less well-known schools, you'll often get close access to the best teachers there (though you may have to do a little more research to figure out who those teachers are!). Furthermore, some top students flourish in environments where they aren't surrounded exclusively by other highly motivated, high achieving students.

One last consideration is the actual course of study you plan to pursue; great schools aren't great at everything. If you have a particular major in mind, you should look for schools that are great at the particular program you're interested in. This is especially true for programs in the arts, architecture, and engineering. If you're interested in architecture, for example, some of the best programs may be at schools that would never make a more traditional top 25 university list.

In the final analysis, prestige definitely matters. But it's not the only factor you should consider in making your choice about college. Sometimes you can get more personal attention from top professors at a less well-known university, especially if the school has an honors college. You can get personalized recommendations for schools that suit your interests and budget here.

There are also a lot more factors related to fit (something I start to address here, but don't really do justice to). We'll start exploring other aspects of fit in my post next week.

Crest, Lightbulb

Previously: Should the Government Give Colleges a Value Report Card?

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