On Friday U.S. News & World Report will release its annual college rankings--a lucrative ploy that not only sells tons of magazines, but also inflates the reputations of certain colleges and universities. These rankings (and U.S. News is not alone in them any more) convince many students that a college's reputation will have a marked affect on their education, their future job prospects, and maybe even how much they learn.
All of those results will depend much more on how hard a student is willing to work (and how many 9:00am classes they will bother to attend), than the ZIP code or the ranking of their college. I'll admit that there's a difference in the education a student will receive from a struggling community college and a wealthy liberal arts school like Amherst or Bates. But the community college student can transfer after 2 years to a state school and achieve more intellectually than an unmotivated prep school kid who doesn't know why he's at college except that its a waystation to the better life he's promised.
Though I've not done this, I bet that if you plotted the results of the U.S. News ranking compared to how old and how big an endowment a college has, you would fine remarkably parallel lines. I wish I did well enough in my sophomore-year statistics course to remember how to run a regression analysis. Ranking top colleges is like ranking the popular kids in high school--satisfying but otherwise meaningless.
When I made my college decision on a May afternoon over 10 years ago, I weighed vignettes from campus visits, memories of sitting in on random classes, conversations with students and recent graduates, raw numbers of financial aid offers, and most importantly--the swirl of three names running through my head: Harvard, Yale, and Brandeis. But the question that I repeated to myself most often, and which I remember well, was "Can I turn down Harvard?" As it turns out, I couldn't and I didn't. I don't wish I would have gone elsewhere because of the great friends I made there (and it's hard to wish them away), but I wish I had understood what's really important about choosing and using a college education when I was still in high school.