One Look At Excellent Colleges

One Look At Excellent Colleges



This fall, as​ numerous college rankings hit the bookstores, I was curious to​ find an​ answer to​ the question: “What is​ an​ ‘excellent school’?” after a​ parent, prospective student or​ college recruiter sifted through all of​ this material.

There has been debate among admissions officers and college presidents over the value of​ ranking one school over another based on statistics, and those debates are valid—to a​ point. The rankings mean little to​ the best of​ the best; Harvard, for example, will not lose applicants for being the #2 school. They mean little to​ quality schools that charge little or​ no tuition, such as​ the military service academies, flagship state universities and specialty institutions like Cooper Union and Webb Institute. These schools will always fill their classes with excellent students, regardless of​ their ranking.

Rankings could however, mean something to​ families that have to​ make a​ choice between similar regional or​ national schools that appear below the best of​ the best, for instance a​ top regional university versus an​ excellent national university that’s listed in​ the top 100. They might also help applicants make a​ choice between the flagship state university in​ their home state and similar schools in​ other states that charge low out-of-state tuition and room and board rates. Being a​ Rutgers graduate from New Jersey, I’m especially sensitive to​ this; the University of​ Delaware and West Virginia University have been popular destinations for Garden State residents for decades.

Rankings appear to​ mean a​ lot to​ the presidents of​ some schools; high rankings can convince trustees to​ increase their investments in​ facilities and scholarships to​ build-up the school’s reputation. a​ boost from 75th to​ 50th means more to​ an​ up-and-coming national university than it​ does for a​ school that has a​ long-cemented international reputation. These ambitions are not necessarily bad; a​ nation can never have enough quality schools.

I did my own “kitchen table exercise” with the most recent U.S. News college guide after sifting through the published rankings. I set my own standard of​ excellence, based on the reported graduation and student retention rates. My thought was that the best schools are the ones that do the best to​ attract, retain and graduate their entering classes.

Graduation and retention rates are not perfect, but they’re the results by which admissions and student services are best measured. an​ excellent school has rigorous academics, but does all it​ can to​ help their students succeed; it​ serves no one to​ make college an​ intense “boot camp” experience to​ whittle a​ class down to​ an​ elite few. High retention and graduation rates are more likely to​ help attract alumni support and interest from graduate schools and employers than poor ones.

I set my bar high: an​ 85 percent freshman retention rate and a​ 65 percent six-year graduation rate. I dislike the idea of​ using a​ six-year graduation rate, but there are legitimate reasons: leaves of​ absence, military or​ missionary service, cooperative educational opportunities (combine school and work) and interest in​ multiple degree programs being examples.

In my kitchen table exercise, I found that 265 four-year schools met my standard. Among the nation’s 262 Large Research Universities—these are the large public and private universities--104 schools met or​ exceeded the 85-65 standard, including all of​ the top 72 in​ the rankings. Among 266 National Liberal Arts Colleges, 105 met or​ exceeded both numbers. There were also 37 regional universities and 8 baccalaureate colleges that met or​ bested both marks, as​ well as​ 11 specialty (fine arts, performing arts, engineering and business) schools.

By my standard, the list of​ “excellent” schools is​ larger than some parents might think. it​ does include the most selective public and private institutions, but also 84 schools that admitted more than 65% of​ their applicant pool for this year’s entering class. But there is​ another side to​ this analysis: the verbal and math SATs. The higher the school ranked in​ U.S. News, the higher the range of​ the scores. a​ combined 1,050 to​ 1,100 on the verbal and math SATs put most applicants near the bottom quarter of​ the pool in​ most of​ my excellent schools. Excellent grades might offset the test scores at​ all except the best of​ the best, but it’s best to​ prepare for the tests.

What could I conclude from this?

The best of​ the best schools deserve the accolades they receive, but there are other schools equally deserving of​ the same attention. Ask me to​ name names. Some might surprise you.

Are these the only numbers a​ family should consider?

They’re a​ start. if​ financial concerns are paramount, then ask about the average tuition increases and student loan indebtedness for the recent graduating classes. Also ask about the school’s bond rating; it​ reflects the school’s ability to​ earn income and cover its costs, while keeping tuition increases as​ low as​ possible. Both of​ these measures are important, because scholarships and grants do not always increase as​ tuition increases; you might have to​ make up the difference.

There are plenty of​ choices among excellent schools, but only you and your financial advisors can determine your ability to​ pay for college. it​ might surprise you to​ find out which school is​ your best value.




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