Every year, numerous organizations decide which colleges are the highest ranked among the more than 4,500 degree-granting institutions in the U.S. Universities such as Columbia, Harvard, MIT and Yale dominate these ranking systems. Consequently, tens of thousands of graduating high school seniors apply to these schools, increasing their ranking, thus helping them become ever more selective, since one aspect of college selectivity means fewer are accepted than those who apply.
Besides selectivity, what kinds of criteria do these ranking systems use? The U.S News and World Report, which ranks the “Best Colleges” every year, deemed graduation rate (students graduate within 6 years), reputation among peers and the expenditures per student as the most important factors that define the best schools. The other most weighted five factors among the 15 they use include standardized test scores, average class size, guidance counselor reputation, projected graduation rate and faculty compensation. How much do any of these factors – or those not listed here but available on U.S News and World Report’s website – affect the success of current college students or graduates in the work force?
Many of these indicators of what defines the best have little bearing on student retention, graduation and how graduates then fare within the workforce. Several are entirely subjective, such as peer and guidance counselor reputation. Factors like standardized test scores can be directly linked to a student’s income and parent’s education level, favoring those with a higher income and family’s previous higher educational opportunities. So what matters for the success of all students, if not selectivity and being at the top of rankings systems, such as that of The Princeton Review or The Wall Street Journal?
According to Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, in their article “A Fit Over Rankings – Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity” (October 2018) engagement is the most important factor in student success. They note that “students who benefit the most from college are those who are the most engaged in their academics and campus communities, taking advantage of the opportunities and resources their particular institution provides.” (page 16) They cite a Gallup-Purdue study that identified six “key college experiences that have an impact on how fulfilled employees feel at work and whether they are thriving in life after college” (page 17):
- Taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting.
- Working with professors who care about students personally.
- Finding a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals.
- Working on a project across several semesters.
- Participating in an internship that applies classroom learning.
- Being active in extracurricular activities.
Bridges encourages students to take steps to engage fully in their college experience. Part of this is choosing a college that’s a “good fit,” at which the student has the opportunity to dive into one, some or all of the six key college experiences that create student engagement and success, through their postsecondary experience and into their working life in the future. This can happen wherever they attend, from a two-year to four-year college, regardless of the degree they pursue or their career goals.