Informed Choices About College Start With The Student, Not With the Rankings

President's Perspective

October 2011

Last month the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings were published. The U.S. News “Best Colleges” is the best-known, or at least the best-promoted, guide to American colleges, but there are more than 30 college guides, including the Princeton Review series, Peterson’s, and the Fiske Guide to Colleges.

During this college application season I want to offer some reflections, both as a parent who underwent the college search with two sons as well as a seasoned college administrator.

Since one integral objective of going to college is to graduate, the most important piece of information in the guides is the graduation rate, which is required to be reported annually to the U.S. Department of Education. The graduation rate is an indicator of student satisfaction with the college experience. Unhappy students are more inclined to transfer or drop out. The six-year graduation rate nationally for students at four-year institutions is just over 50%. Families interested in four-year institutions should look at those with graduation rates of 70% or above. That would represent about 35% of research universities and 45% of national liberal arts colleges.

The latest graduation rate reported for Ursinus is 81%, which places it in the top 70 of the country’s 252 national liberal arts colleges. Ursinus was also featured in the Princeton Review’s Best 376 Colleges, one of only 15 percent of American four-year colleges and universities to be included.

Whereas graduation rate is one indicator of quality, no ranking can indicate whether a particular school is a good fit. Choosing a college does not start with a list of schools but with an inventory of the student. Is the ambiance of a smaller college a priority? Is there a desire to study a subject that isn’t generally available at most schools? What is the proper balance between a liberal education and career preparation? How important is it to be a part of a compatible on-campus community? Is there interest in Greek societies, athletics, or arts groups? Does the student want opportunities for internships, faculty-student research, or study abroad?

Where well-intentioned parents go wrong is by proceeding as if there were a unified ranking by quality with the ultimate goal of the student being admitted into the highest-rated school that the family can afford. Rankings are based on data, like the amount of endowment available per student, which provide little information about how well the college will meet the needs of a particular student. A ranking will not tell you if the student is likely to thrive. In the end, the student should choose a school based on matters of interest, fit, and potential for growth, not by ranking.

In the case of Ursinus, a certain type of student will do well here. These are the curious, capable students who want to immerse themselves in four years of intense study. When I meet Ursinus students, I am impressed not only by their passion for their majors but by how much they want to learn about other subjects and how involved they are in the life of the campus and community. There is the student with the double major in Biology and Dance; the Politics and International Relations major who served as an officer in the French Club and completed an internship in Strasbourg, France; and the Renaissance Studies major (self-designed) who is a bilingual America Reads volunteer.

That’s why at Ursinus, our goal in admissions is to be clear with regard to the College’s particular strengths. We are intentional in fostering faculty/student relationships in which advising goes beyond course requirements to discerning life values and vocations. Every student does an Independent Learning Experience, whether an internship, independent research, study abroad, or student teaching. We are committed to liberal education, beginning in the freshman Common Intellectual Experience and first-year residential program, where students immediately grapple with issues of character and responsibility. We develop them into courageous and compassionate citizens of the world where their individual flourishing is intertwined with the welfare of others.

Rankings and guidebooks have a useful purpose. They can highlight differences in academic options and student life. They can identify institutions that foster lifelong learning and opportunities for experiential education. The class rank and standardized test scores can give some indication as to how a prospective student compares to the general student body profile at a given school. But college admission is not only about who has the best grades or scores. In addition to guides and rankings, parents should focus on assessing their child’s temperament and values, to refine what the student might seek from a college. Informed choices start with the student, not the rankings.

Go Bears!
Bobby Fong
President, Ursinus College