What’s the best college? It depends

If you’re a high school student deciding where to apply for college, or the parent of a student, you’ve probably done a fair amount of research. Even so, there are some schools that might have escaped your notice, such as MCPHS University, LIU Brooklyn, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and Babson College.

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If you’re a high school student deciding where to apply for college, or the parent of a student, you’ve probably done a fair amount of research. Even so, there are some schools that might have escaped your notice, such as MCPHS University, LIU Brooklyn, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and Babson College.

You say you need Google to learn where some of those schools are located? That’s the point: Excellence and prestige aren’t synonyms. And what do these relatively obscure institutions (take no offense, proud alums) have in common? They got the highest score, 100, on a recent evaluation by the Brookings Institution. That puts them right up there with a school you may have heard of — Harvard. It’s in Massachusetts.

Brookings tries to calculate the “value added” by each school, distinguishing the student characteristics that foster success from the benefit provided by the school itself. Bill Gates became the second-richest person in the world after studying at Harvard (though he didn’t graduate), but he probably would have been very successful even if he had gone somewhere else. Brookings wants to identify the schools that give their grads the biggest boost. We’ve long supported evaluating student progress (not just student achievement) as a metric for judging K-12 schools. Why not colleges too?

Other rankings, however, yield different results. The Wall Street Journal’s list puts Stanford at No. 1, followed by MIT and Columbia. U.S. News gives the top spot among “national universities” to Princeton, with Harvard and the University of Chicago just below.

The Economist magazine of Britain recently came out with its rankings — based, it says, “on a simple, if debatable, premise: The economic value of a university is equal to the gap between how much money students subsequently earn, and how much they might have made had they studied elsewhere.”

In this it resembles the Brookings approach, but with different results. The top three schools are Washington and Lee, Babson and Villanova. Among those in the top 10 are Bentley, Otis College of Art and Design, Lehigh, Alderson Broaddus and California State University at Bakersfield.

But career earnings are not necessarily the best way to assess a school. The Wall Street Journal says most of the elite institutions don’t score particularly well on student engagement, which means their students “may not have the most enriching educational experiences.” The best place for student engagement, according to the Journal? Dordt College.

Nor are past results any guarantee. Schools change over time. The ingredients that fueled the class of 1991 might have diminished or disappeared by the time the class of 2021 arrives. And, The Economist notes, “It is also possible that the highly ranked colleges simply got lucky.”

All this should come as solace to young people who don’t get in, or can’t afford, the school they most desire. We know three who got to attend the colleges of their dreams — and transferred elsewhere after their first semesters. We know others who settled for their second or third choice and now feel deeply fortunate that circumstances put them there.

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What a student gets out of college depends primarily on what the student puts in. If you get accepted at MCPHS or Rose-Hulman, good for you, and likewise if you’ll be enrolling at Stanford, Texas Tech or Beloit. Whether you get a good education or have a rewarding experience or make a successful career depends a lot on you. And it never hurts to be lucky.

— Chicago Tribune