The Wall Street Journal published its annual ranking of U.S. colleges and universities this week. As if you can rank colleges. Seriously, who’s to say which the best college is for you? What’s important to you? What are you looking for in a college? What do you value that perhaps others don’t? The answers are different for everyone. Moreover, who’s to say which college is of higher quality when even the colleges themselves are usually clueless about the job they’re doing of educating their students?
That said, the rankings are a reminder not to be too cavalier about your choice of college for no other reason than it is a gateway into the workforce; in other words, your choice of college will have an impact on the number and type of opportunities that await you upon graduation.
You can pour through all the rankings if you like. You’ll spend considerable time because rankings have bred like rabbits in recent years. But if you’re trying to determine which colleges have the best reputation, are well regarded by employers, and are likely to put you in a good position upon graduation, you can check one simple data point: the percentage of incoming students who graduate in four years (the institution’s four-year graduation rate). The higher, the better.
When I assumed the presidency of a small liberal arts college, one of my goals was to improve our four-year graduation rate. I inherited a four-year rate under 50%, which I found entirely unacceptable both from a financial and educational standpoint (high attrition is costly and adversely impacts the learning environment). If I were the parent of a college-bound kid, I’d never allow him or her to consider a college with a rate that low (unless they were attending a community college, which has an entirely different mission from that of a four-year residential college). Personally, my cutoff would be 75%, with the goal of attending a college closer to 90%, assuming admittance was realistic given the academic credentials of the applicant.
There are other considerations in choosing a school of course. But none can makeup for deficiencies in the perceived quality and value of the institution. Which is why I’d always start the search by comparing four-year graduation rates.
P.S. Many colleges will try to tout their six-year graduation rates, hoping to distract you from focusing on the four-year rate. Don’t fall for it, unless you’re content to spend six years of your life working on a bachelor’s degree (i.e., unless you’re not very smart and don’t mind squandering precious resources).