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Rethinking Selectivity

Opinion | February 3, 2014

Why America is missing the point of college education.

When I was young, the media taught me that there is a hierarchy in the American undergraduate school system, with some schools being “better” than others. To me, the selectivity of a college was synonymous with the quality of education that it provided.

Though my mindset has changed since then, that of the mainstream American media has not. Every year, US News & World Report publishes interpretive rankings of the best undergraduate schools in the country, based on statistics like the class rank of incoming students, test scores, and graduation rates. Other publications like Forbes and Business Insider also have their ranking systems. Though I’m sure these websites have no malicious intent in creating these rankings, the result of these lists is that they drive readers to value one school over the other.

The reality is that there is a widespread belief in the United States that a person’s intellectual worth is directly tied to the selectivity of the college they attend. No doubt, this belief stems from the fact that selective schools like Harvard and MIT have graduated many of the leading members of a variety of intellectual and business fields. Though attendance at schools with low acceptance rates is often correlated with personal achievement, there is no real causality.

Education is learning about yourself and the world around you. It is not about being magically transformed into a successful individual. Though it’s easy to cite individuals like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Gabe Newell as examples of successful Harvard College graduates, all three of them actually dropped out of Harvard. Though they were at Harvard at that point in their lives, I don’t think their success can be attributed to the university itself.

Harvard is an excellent school and its students certainly receive fantastic educations, but people like Gates, Zuckerberg, and Newell didn’t succeed because of their Harvard education. They evidently already possessed the vision that led them to become highly influential leaders in their respective fields, and it was their own individual brilliance that allowed them to succeed in their pursuits.
Jack Welch, one of the most successful CEOs in history, graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In an article he wrote for the Boston Globe last year, Welch described himself when he arrived at UMass in 1953 as a “work in progress.” Welch explains that two professors he met during his time at UMass Amherst “changed the trajectory of [his] life.” Their guidance led him to the subject of chemistry, resulting in his drive to earn a PhD in chemical engineering, and ultimately brought him to General Electric.

Of course, the largest arguments from proponents of brand name schools have to do with how they relate to professional success. They say that one gets a leg up in the job search from attending a brand name school, the idea being that if a recognizable school’s name is on a person’s resume, it will give them a higher likelihood of employment.

From a purely financial perspective, statistics show that financial success is not necessarily tied to brand name school attendance. According to CNN Money, Stevens Institute of Technology has on average the third highest paid graduates of any school in the country, and Babson College has the fifth highest. Though some would not consider these “brand name” schools, it does not seem to have affected the financial success of their graduates. However, an average salary is not the best way to evaluate the success of someone’s college education, as different career paths often yield different financial gains.

And yet, the reality is that every employer is trying to hire the best worker possible. An individual’s accomplishments and attitude, regardless of where they went to college, are what really matter in the hiring process. Though the University of Massachusetts Amherst may not be a “brand name” school, it evidently didn’t bother the person who hired Mr. Welch at GE. It is the responsibility of employers to look holistically at the people who apply for jobs at their companies, and if those employers are only using the names of universities to determine that, then they may miss some of the best candidates. Great people can come from selective universities, but that does not mean that they cannot come from anywhere else.

Higher education is an individual and personalized experience. It seems that far too often, people see the college admissions process as some kind of competition in which the “best” students go to the “best” undergraduate schools, which could not be further from the truth. The priorities of a specific student should determine where they apply to college; they should try to find a program that fits their personal goals. And yet, the college process is imperfect. Admissions committees have a strong hand in deciding where applicants will attend college, but students are responsible for what they do during college.

Ultimately, a person’s self worth is not defined by the name on their college sweatshirt. There is no “best college” in America, but there are best colleges for individuals. Famous schools like those in the Ivy League may have excellent resources and brilliant faculty, but what gives them and every other school in the country the potential to be great is how much their students get out of the time they spend there. In an article for The Prospect, Emily Keator says that though she was accepted to Harvard College, she chose to attend the lesser-known Davidson College because it was a “better fit for [her].” She said that she valued the “small classes and close relationships with professors” that Davidson offered her, something she feared she wouldn’t get at Harvard. Rather than following rankings, Keator followed her reasons for going to college in the first place, and it was those reasons that led her to a school where she is happy and getting the most out of her education.

What really should be ranked is the difference between before and after a student goes to college. The success of an educational experience is determined by how much a person values it and how much he or she grows from it, and different schools are better for different people. College is about giving people the chance to follow their dreams, for success is whatever we define it to be.