Universitas Blog

Selectivity Does Not Equal Quality

Thursday, December 12, 2013

If a college is hard to get into, it must be a very good college.  The harder it is to get into a college, the more desirable it is, hence, the better it must be.

 
The sentiment above is prevalent among college applicants and their parents.  The harder (or the more selective) the college, the better it is.  This is a natural thing to assume.  Unfortunately, along with its partner in crime, prestige (which I wrote about in a previous post), it has warped many many college searches.  Candidates put themselves through enormous stress in trying to get into the most competitive, most selective universities in America (and the world) in the mistaken belief that because it's tough to get into, it must be good.   All the while, a perfectly good (or even better) alternative may be right there but ignored because it dared accept more than 50% of its applicants.

Selectivity is simply this:  you take the number of spaces available in the freshman class and divide by the number of applicants.  Multiply by 100.  This gives you the percentage of admitted applicants and is called selectivity.  That's it.  It's a number.  Nowhere in the formula for selectivity is there an indicator of educational quality.  It doesn't figure student engagement, accessibility of professors, class size...none of that!  If there are a lot of applicants and not a lot of seats in the freshman class, then the university can be very selective.  Quite simply:  it's a matter of supply and demand;  in the case of very selective universities:  there's a lot of demand and very little supply.

But, many would argue, if the college is truly exceptional then of course people would flock to it, creating great demand.  People aren't stupid.  Or are they?  Think of the role of marketing in shaping people's desires, if it's true for soap it's true for colleges.  If marketing can make one soap more desirable than another then marketing can do the same for colleges.  Think of a movie that drew a lot of people but was a real dud in the end (for me, movies like AVATAR and DA VINCI CODE come to mind).  Just because it's hard to get a concert to see One Direction, it doesn't mean that their music is any good (apologies to One Direction fans).  Besides, what makes the college applicant and his/her parents a discerning judge of colleges?  The college applicant is (or should be) expert in only one thing:  his or herself.  He or she should then use this expertise to find the college with the best fit.

Better than selectIVE colleges are selectED colleges.  These colleges are ones that have such a distinct personality or characteristic that students who are attracted to that personality or characteristic apply there.  Applicants write purposeful applications to these colleges because they want to go there.  What are some of these selected colleges?  Obvious ones come to mind...the military academies for example; West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy.  These colleges obviously appeal to those who want to get a military education.  Well, we Filipinos can't go there, so are there any other places?  The two schools I mentioned in the previous post also come to mind:  Reed is very intellectual and emphasize critical thinking and small seminar type classes.  St. John's College is a Great Books school where one spends four years studying the liberal arts through the works of the greatest minds in human history.  Hampshire College in Massachusetts offers a broad liberal education which is largely student designed, no grades but written faculty evaluations.  Colorado College and Cornell College are the only two colleges in America (Quest University is another but it's in Canada) to use the Block Plan.  Here, a student takes only one class at a time...for three and a half weeks, he concentrates on only one subject and learns a semester's worth of material.  This might seem rather odd and intense but think about it...the class can do field trips, special lab projects, special outings because there are no other classes to worry about.   These places don't appeal to everyone but they do attract certain kinds of students and if you happen to be one of them, you'll be happier here than you will at the super selective (so called) elite universities.

So am I saying that it's bad to go to a selective college?  Absolutely not!  Reed is now quite selective (admits about 40% of its applicants) but back when I was applying to college (in the early 80s) they admitted 95% of their applicants.  What I am saying is that don't let a college's selectivity make you automatically think it's better and that you are better off there.  Don't get stuck in the line for tickets to One Direction!

I wish all a happy, safe, and healthy 2013 holiday season.

The Role of Prestige

Wednesday, December 04, 2013
Tell me if you think this is true: 

 1.  In every college applicant's college list, the most prestigious, most selective college in that list is almost always that applicant's top choice

 2.  A college applicant will almost always attend the most prestigious, most selective college that admitted him/her. 

R-i-i-ghht??? 

Prestige and selectivity drives the college search of many Filipino /Chinese students.  If you think about it, that's pretty natural in our culture.  From Day One, we are raised to think that the Big Name and the Big Brand is the way to go.  Go Sony...not Panasonic, Mercedes Benz and not Toyota.  But a Toyota gets you to school just as easily as a Benz will.  But of course, no one turns their head at a Toyota. It's the same with colleges.  As parents, we all want our children to go to Harvard.  That way, when people ask us over the mahjong table where our children go to college, we can say "Harvard" and listen to everyone else oooh and aaah.   It's not always easy to keep in mind that we parents send our kids to college to get an education. 

Massachusetts Hall, Harvard University, Cambri... 

 But,  you might then say, I am sending...or trying to send...my kid to Harvard (or Yale, or Princeton, etc.) because I'm trying to get them the BEST education.  These places admit the best students, have the best professors and have the best programs and facilities because everyone else says so.  They are prestigious for a reason. 

Indeed.  But I posit this:  if you are truly looking for a first rate undergraduate experience for your child (I emphasize the word "experience" because I am referring both to the "book education" and "non-book education" offered by a college) then you do yourself a disservice by limiting your search to the Ivy League and their ilk.  There are hundreds of universities and colleges that offer an undergraduate experience (there's that word again) equal to or even (dare I say it) superior to anything the Ivy League can offer.  The only thing that these "other" schools cannot offer is the brand name. 

What are some of these so-called "just as good if not better than Ivy" schools?  I can think of about forty or fifty right off the top of my head.  But I'll start with what I think is the most intellectual college in the country:  Reed College in Portland, Oregon.  If you subscribe to the notion that students at the best colleges should be working the hardest, Reed is consistently ranked by students as one of the top two or three most academically demanding colleges in the US.  ALL their students must write a senior thesis, not just those in honors programs.  Reed is also notorious for being one of the hardest grading schools in the country:  a student with a Reed C average can get into the top US law schools because these law schools know the quality of Reed students and how hard the grading system is.  Contrast this to Yale where 62% of the grades are A's (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/11/21/college-grade-inflation-what-does-an-mean/3662003/  And the best part:  Reed is more accessible (admits 40% of their applicants) than Yale (admits only about 6% of their applicants)

 What about uniqueness?  Let's admit it:  you've seen one Ivy you've seen them all (mostly).  Except for Brown's no required classes policy and Columbia's strict core curriculum, you can almost throw all the other Ivies into a bag and they'd be academically indistinguishable.  Not so for a place like St. John's College (www.stjohnscollege.edu) in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Their students study The Great Books, classic works from Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Homer to Aquinas, Hegel, Newton, Pascal,  and d'Tocqueville.  All their classes are small and taught seminar style, no mind numbing lectures here.  Everybody struggles with the material, even the professors (or tutors as they are called).  When they graduate, these students are the most articulate, most critical thinkers in the business.  St. John's is definitely not a place for everyone, though...not everyone can handle this kind of intensity.

 It's hard to swallow that there are schools that might be better than the Ivies.  But it's true!  Even Harvard will tell you that not everyone will benefit from a Harvard education even if they could admit all applicants. Of course, were they to admit everyone, the value of a Harvard degree would diminish greatly in the eyes of the public.  Would you still want to go to Harvard  if it admitted everyone?  If the value of a Harvard degree is in the quality of its education,  should its admission rate even bother you?  Think about it and be honest  It's that prestige thing again. Much of the value of a Harvard (or Ivy) degree lies in its presumed prestige.

 It's okay for prestige to be a part of the equation of your college search but it's not a good idea to let it solely drive your search (as it does for a lot of people but they won't admit it).  Separate the two and don't fool yourself that prestige necessarily equals educational quality.  In the end, the best school is the one that challenges you and forms you into the happy, successful adult you deserve to be.

John Sy, President and Senior Counselor
Universitas College Counseling
203A CM Recto Street
San Juan, Metro Manila, Philippines

johnsy@universitasph.com
+63 (917) 833-3825


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John Sy, President and Senior Counselor
Universitas College Counseling
203A CM Recto Street
San Juan, Metro Manila, Philippines

johnsy@universitasph.com

+63 (917) 833-3825

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