Why do we assume that colleges that are more selective provide students with a better education? Where does this notion come from? Is there any truth to it?


Amy Yvette Garrou, College admissions expert (US and international colleges)

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This is a fascinating and multi-layered question. The assumption that colleges that are more selective provide students a better education begins with the glorification of the selectivity (what percentage of students who apply are accepted? Is it 5%, 25%, 60%, or 85%) instead of the quality of instruction and the success of its graduates. In other words, this assumption is built on inputs, rather than outcomes.

Both are important, no doubt. Many colleges correlate success in classes with an incoming student's grades in a highly rigorous high-school curriculum. If you made As and Bs in Honors and college-level classes such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, you are likely to continue to do so in college. It's common sense that a student needs to be prepared academically to handle both the challenge of heightened expectations for reading, writing, and quantitative ability as well as -- in most traditional campuses -- the ability to live and attend class in close quarters with others. Admissions offices' expectations of some level of student preparedness makes sense.

In some instances-- the most publicized ones--the supply of highly-qualified and accomplished applicants far outpaces the demand: at a large university, there may be 2500 dormitory beds, for example, and 40,000 applications for those 2500 freshman spots. At smaller liberal-arts colleges, there may be 400 freshman beds and 5,000 applications.

This may not be the place for a thorough discussion for the reasons behind the supply-and-demand disconnect at the nation's most selective institutions. For now, a few factors contributing to this are:

Size; Specialization and well-known departments; Age; History; Media attention, generated by successful sports teams or faculty in the news; "Brand" (an amalgamation of all the above factors, distilled into a logo or slogan or widespread marketing); Alumni loyalty.

We assume that the more selective an institution is, the "better" the education one receives. But what makes a "good" education? What makes a "good" college?

The answer may be different for each person. For someone who likes discussion-based classes (which are usually small, i.e. 30 or fewer students), going to a college or university where three of their five freshman and sophomore classes are taught as lectures three times a week with one hour of a small-group discussion may not constitute a "good" education, no matter how experienced the professor. Or a college (large or small) where eighty percent of a student's final grade is a result of one final exam could be the opposite way a particular student succeeds.

Having been a college counselor at three high schools, I've seen that most students don't factor the way they learn into their choice of colleges. They, or their families, go for a highly selective or famous school no matter that they've thrived in small high-school classes. Even if that student happens to be accepted by a college with an 8% acceptance rate, she may come back after the first year having struggled in order to make B's, or Cs, on those crucial final exams. She may have found it difficult to learn the material presented in a lecture format.

There are many other factors that can make one college "better" than another for a particular student (size, composition of the student body, attitudes and prevailing beliefs among the student body, activities available, living arrangements, even the weather).

Consider this example:
I had a student recently who applied to eight or ten colleges with single-digit acceptance rates. He applied to others with higher acceptance rates, even to a few who accept more than half of their applicant overall.

He wanted to study engineering or computer science. Although that's what he wanted, a few of his low-acceptance-rate colleges were not known as having the nation's best-resourced schools of engineering. They have terrific faculty and resources overall, but not necessarily the most emphasis on what he wanted to study.

In the end, he was accepted to the engineering honors program at our flagship state university (accepting some 45%), and to another large public university in another state accepting about 60% overall but whose engineering school is widely considered one of the best in the country, with large and varied engineering disciplines, sought-after professors, and state-of-the-art labs and research accessible to undergraduates. And, unlike another, similarly well-resourced university (with a 20% offer rate) where he got in, he could get into the computer science department as a freshman at the school with the 60% acceptance rate. He visited campus, he came back impressed, and he marveled to me at how a college with a high acceptance rate could be so "good." It was good for him: it allowed him to study what he wanted right away, and to be flexible if he decided to switch engineering majors; it had professors famous in their disciplines, and he liked the campus atmosphere, in particular the excitement he felt in the students and the faculty by the level of research being done.

It may seem logical, on the surface, to assume that colleges with low acceptance rates are "better," but going to college in the US offers such a wide variety of learning atmospheres, specializations, and campus atmospheres--taught by faculty who have been through a highly rigorous selection process themselves-- that it's a false generalization to equate a low acceptance rate with a better education.

Amanda Morris, College Professor, Writer, Advisor, Writing Coach

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I love Amy's answer here - she provides some terrific perspective and wisdom. Allow me to add my perspective as a college prof at a public state university who received her Ph.D. from a public land grant research university and who attended a tiny private liberal arts college for undergrad. If any student or family makes a decision about college based on how selective or exclusive the place is, they are missing out on a potentially great education. Name recognition and the size of a university's endowment do not necessarily equal a strong undergraduate educational experience for the students. Consider the downsides of such highly touted and well-recognized programs: The professors might not be as available to you as an undergrad because they only teach one or two courses a semester, have graduate students teaching most sections, and are more focused on research and publishing than teaching; the competitive nature of the selection process may result in a peer group that is also highly competitive and full of people you may or may not connect with; and the opportunities for internships, assistantships, student jobs, financial aid, networking, and even leadership positions (for students) may be tied up by the more privileged and connected legacy students. These are not guaranteed downsides to the highly selective colleges, but they do exist and they can happen. Students may have more opportunities open to them and better chances to make their mark before heading out into the world at a less selective university - one that embraces students from every level of society.

Where does this idea come from - that these well-heeled, highly selective programs are somehow better than others? Well, if you're in America, the simple answer is money. Most of the colleges who fit that description are also some of the most expensive, including smaller private colleges up through the Ivies. People with lots of money attend these colleges, and then donate money to those colleges, and then send their children to those colleges after making education a primary and important focus of that child's life, as one example. So students who come from more modest means, or whose families are not well-connected or well-educated, may find it very hard to gain entrance to one of these programs because their families lack the money to send them and they have not been pushed to excel academically throughout life. In America, we love and hate people with money - as we love and hate people who are well-educated. But emotional responses aside, there is a very practical reality connected to the expectations surrounding education - we equate highly selective colleges with money and success, therefore, if we can afford it, we want our kids to go there because we assume that an education from this highly selective and likely very expensive university will guarantee our kid will succeed.

But that's just not practical. Students can and should go where they not only feel comfortable, but also where they will excel, be supported by faculty and staff, and have a real opportunity to find their passion and shine bright for whatever future they want. And that usually means attending a more affordable school that may not have an exclusive reputation, but may send more students successfully into the careers and lives that they want.

Anonymous, Former graduate student

This is a general trend that I would say contains truth in a general sense. Yes, the most prestigious schools out there also have the lowest admission rates and are the most selective. Generally, the more selective a school is, the better quality of an education it is able to provide. This is because whatever it is that they offer is in higher demand for other universities. Thus, the university has to limit the amount of incoming students that they are allowed to take. This means they have to reject that many more students, leading the university to be more selective.

Of course, there is a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy involved in all this. The prestige allures in more students each year, causing more students to be rejected, and thus lowering the admission rate (and raising the prestige!). However, this doesn't mean that a lower admission rate leads to higher prestige. You may have noticed that prestigious universities tend to have successful and well-known alumni. This is a direct indication that the university is able to live up to its reputation and educate its students well. So while there is truth to this notion that you are asking about, there are exceptions and

However, there will always be exceptions, depending on your program, major, and other factors. Just because one university has an admission rate that is 5% lower than another university doesn't mean that it has a better program. Admission rates are a general representation of the university as a whole and may not accurately represent your major. While a major factor in determining university prestige, selectivity is only one part of the picture.

Anonymous, Sam Museus is a professor of Higher Education

The other experts have given great responses. I will add that several studies have been conducted to test the effects of institutional selectivity on student outcomes. When controlling for other variables (e.g., incoming students' preparedness), the evidence does not necessarily support the notion that institutional selectivity contributes to a higher quality education. That said, there are significant benefits that accrue to individuals if they get into a selective institution (e.g., access to social networks with lots of resources, a "prestigious" degree that will lead people to think that you are smarter than those with a credential from a less prestigious institution, etc.).

M. Erez Kats, Seattle Language Arts Teacher, Author, and Artist

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I believe that of course, there will always be a certain amount of truth to the validity of selective schools being places that provide a top-notch education, and produce top-notch students and graduates. This likely would not be the case if they hadn't established at some point in the past, a reputation and an impressive resume of scholars who had succeeded in the world, and made significant contributions to society, most likely due to the teachings of very talented and established professors and sterling & accredited programs. The real question comes down to that reputation itself, and how exactly it was achieved, just as it does in so many other places in business and in the world at large (i.e was there any corruption in the success? or marks on the school's integrity?, etc.). In addition to this, some schools live off of their reputation, but can have a tendency to get complacent, lazy, or fail to stay up with the times in terms of faculty, facilities, or university resources/technology on the whole. They may have become out-of-date, but of course they still have "the name" to fall back on. You'd be surprised, even some Ivy League schools, or possibly certain departments within a highly esteemed school may have slipped or dropped significantly, and there are countless pieces of evidence or testimony to prove this, but of course it gets swept under the rug, or not talked about for obvious reasons. Meanwhile, some very little-known schools without much decoration or notoriety provide the best education programs possible, sometimes at bargain prices, and produce some of the brightest, most successful minds in the nation, and nobody even knows about them unless they are locals or they knew somebody who attended the school. If you are the type of person who believes in the laws of averages, then you probably would say that selective schools will be more likely to be better and produce more great minds. But if you are someone who believes in anomalies, and "diamonds in the rough" so to speak, then you could almost certainly find dozens, if not scores of exceptions to this general rule, and find excellence in schools most would never even dream of. It's all a matter of how deep you like to dig into your research.

Dave Nguyen, Education Consultant, College Lecturer, PhD

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Having gone through the higher education system myself and having interacted with students from other schools, it is true that more competitive colleges have higher standards for their students. This means that on average, a typical student from a competitive college will be more talented and better prepared than a student from a less competitive school. However, this does NOT mean that it is impossible to be a great student or have a well-paying career if you graduate from a less competitive school. It’s more complicated than that.

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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I think much of your question stems from the systems of privilege in this nation. Names and brands matter. Networking opportunities matter. I will tell you that I have taught the same course at a large public state school, a medium size "Little Ivy," and a small liberals arts college. Not much changes when it comes to what happens in my classroom. Now, if you are thinking about those prestigious universities, you are thinking of research institutions. Much of their prestige comes from the research that comes out of their halls. But there is a trade off: the focus on teaching when it comes to promotion is related to the focus on research. Schools can't privilege both. So if you want to have the chance to work with a famous researcher, you probably won't have that opportunity unless you attend graduate school at that famous institution. I am glad I teach a lesser-known public schools that privileges the work I do with students over my research. I believe you can get a good education at any non-profit school as long as you put your all into your experience.

Pamela Petrease Felder, College Selectivity

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There are some great responses here. These perspectives are helpful in understanding this very complex question. Institutional resources lend a tremendous amount of value to the ways institutions are perceived. Elite institutions often have more resources. The more resources an institution has there is a greater likelihood students will benefit from these resources. And, when students benefit from these resources, their positive experiences have long-lasting-effects for the student and institution -- contributing to the development of the student-institutional relationship.

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