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Yes, college rankings do carry a lot of clout

Gerald Bradshaw

Gerald Bradshaw

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Updated: May 30, 2014 7:38PM



Dear Mr. Bradshaw,

I will be applying to college in the fall. I am confused about the importance of college rankings. Are there real advantages to be gained by attending a higher-ranked school? If so what are they? I was told that it didn’t really matter as long as you do well and keep high grades. I am pretty sure I will go to grad school after I graduate.

Signed: Student

Dear student: Does it matter where you go to college? Like it or not, people in the real world care about where you went to school.

It should come as no surprise that ranking colleges is not just a popular pastime on campus (like comparing SAT scores) but a big business as well.

U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings of colleges and universities have become required reading by students and university presidents. Which schools moved up or down in the rankings? Powers-that-be in the higher education business tremble at the thought of losing their place in the pecking order — it’s like waiting to get their report card.

Many college administrators will tell you otherwise, but, off the record, university presidents fear dropping even one notch. Fundraising and alumni contributions might drop if their institutions fall in the rankings.

Potential high-achieving applicants — the future of the institution — read these rankings as a mark of quality, often making their decisions on where to attend college based on these kinds of findings.

High school guidance counselors, students and parents use the rankings as a measure of prestige and academic quality. Corporations start their recruiting efforts at the top-ranked universities. The best offers usually go to graduates of the best schools.

Students graduating from higher-ranking schools also have a greater chance at getting accepted to a first-rate medical, law or graduate school. Likewise, fellowship and grant money flow uphill.

I always tell my clients who are trying to decide between attending a small college or a large university that while a small, non-Ph.D.-granting institution might be a great place to get an education, there are certain disadvantages.

If an advanced degree is in your long-term plans, I recommend attending a higher-ranked research university as an undergraduate. This way, you can get to know the more important professors in your field and can start to build a résumé for graduate school.

Most prestigious universities accept graduate students on the assumption that they will earn doctorate degrees. Earning a first-class Ph.D. is usually a research-intensive process, and graduate programs are looking to admit only the best candidates.

There are other perks for attending a high-ranking undergraduate institution. As a junior at Berkeley, I had the chance to work as a paid researcher for a Ph.D. candidate in sociology. I was paid out of a grant from the Ford Foundation that helped support his research.

I conducted interviews with corporate executives in the San Francisco Bay area on black mobility in white corporations. In no small measure, I believe this helped me gain admission to Harvard Law School. I doubt I would have had this opportunity had I attended a lower-ranked college.

So the mentoring starts as an undergraduate. The process of building important academic relationships starts with getting to know one or two grad students, commonly referred to as teaching fellows. Those small sections of 10 to 12 students who meet twice weekly supplement the larger lecture classes and are generally taught by graduate teaching fellows (or teaching assistants). They can yield a lifetime of benefits. This is your chance to befriend a future colleague and gain a valued mentor.

Also, you will find a higher-ranked research university pulls a lot of weight when the time comes to ask your professors for references and recommendations. Without these, the fellowship money needed to keep you in grad school will be difficult to get.

The more prestigious the school from which you apply, the easier it is to get this kind of financial support. Plus, there are other benefits: traveling fellowships to do research at other universities, study-abroad programs and part-time teaching opportunities that also add to the bottom line.

If a high school student isn’t accepted to a higher-ranking school, that doesn’t mean the world comes to an end. But considering the school’s rank should always be part of the application process.



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