The Scandal of College Admissions

Three myths and some tips for staying sane.

Posted Sep 10, 2019

This week there was a new milestone in the college admissions scandal that blew up earlier this year and has received so much attention in part because it involved several celebrities. Felicity Huffman, who starred in “Desperate Housewives” some years back, received a 14-day jail sentence for arranging to fix her daughter’s SAT score (apparently without her daughter's knowledge). Dozens of other people have been indicted in the investigation, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” by law enforcement. College admissions officers were paid off, college coaches were bribed, and money was laundered by wealthy parents, all with the goal of ensuring that their children would be accepted at an “elite” college.

There is much to deplore in this sordid mess, but as someone who has studied emerging adults (ages 18 to 29) for many years, as well as the college admissions process, one of the saddest and most exasperating aspects of the scandal is that it was all driven by myths about college admissions. It’s these myths that make so many people feel desperate enough to break the rules to get their kids into the “perfect” school at all costs.

It’s not just wealthy celebrities who are prisoners of these myths; millions of American parents and their emerging adults are similarly duped. The real scandal here is that so many colleges and their media lackeys promote destructive myths about admissions, to the detriment of families.

Here are a few facts to consider:

Myth #1: The “best” schools are the ones at the top of the U.S. News ranking.

The worst purveyor of college illusions is U.S. News and World Report’s yearly ranking of the “best” colleges. This ranking is based on metrics like faculty resources and alumni donations(!) that have nothing to do with students’ learning experiences, yet somehow the rankings are trumpeted every year by major media outlets, even as these outlets acknowledge that the U.S. News formula is “controversial.” It’s not just controversial, it’s seriously misleading and should be abandoned.

Dreamstime, used with permission.
Sure am glad I chose a school with a high "Quality of Life" rating.
Source: Dreamstime, used with permission.

Myth #2: The best-known schools provide the best learning experience.

The U.S. News ranking is worse than useless, but fortunately, there’s an excellent source of information about where students have the best learning experiences: The Princeton Review’s annual report on the best 385 colleges. The Princeton Review doesn’t rank order the colleges, because of their well-founded view that there is no school that is “best” for everyone since students differ in their priorities and their needs. Instead, they provide detailed profiles of all 385 schools. However, they also present rankings of the top 20 schools on various important metrics such as “Best Classroom Experience,” “Most Accessible Professors,” and “Best Quality of Life.”

Note well: All the information in the Princeton Review’s ratings is provided by students who attend these schools (which is true of none of the information in the U.S. News rankings). Note this, too: None of the top 20 colleges on the Princeton Review lists cited above are Ivy League schools. Stanford is not there either, nor is NYU. The top-ranked schools are mostly ones that you may not have heard of, many of them quite affordable. These may not be schools that make your friends ooh and ahh when you tell them where your kid goes. They’re just schools that actually provide a first-rate learning experience.

Myth #3: Going to an “elite” college will set you up for the rest of your life.

This is the biggest myth of all. The overwhelming conclusion from a half-century of research on the consequences of college attendance is this: It matters a lot that you get a college degree, because people with a college degree have better future prospects in all aspects of life, from higher career earnings to lower risk of divorce and longer life expectancy. However, where you get your degree matters little. Research that controls for students’ abilities when they enter college—SAT scores and high school class rank—finds little economic benefit to paying the exorbitant costs of an “elite” school.

Also, a study published in the Journal of Labor Research reported that graduates of elite schools actually have lower job satisfaction than graduates of state schools a decade later, perhaps because their expectations had been higher. In short, all the craziness over college admissions, the frenetic striving for admission to a “name” school, not only does not guarantee a good life after college but may even be counterproductive.

The bottom line here, for parents and kids, is that we should dial back the frenzy when it comes to college admissions. The tumult is not healthy, nor is it worth it. Attending college is more important than ever in the modern information economy where the best jobs require you to have knowledge and skills that other people lack. But it doesn’t much matter where you go. So, forget about U.S. News, forget about the “elite” schools, and try to find a place that’s affordable and that offers a healthy and happy learning experience.