Wednesday, January 9, 2008

College Rankings are a Load of Crap

This month I read an interesting article in Reason magazine about college admissions and rankings. It was nothing I hadn't seen before, but it reminded me of something that always annoyed me. College rankings. They are such a load of crap.

Universities get ranked well by being "exclusive" - that is, by denying lots of applicants. So the game is to try to get as many people to apply as possible so you can turn down as many of them as possible. While there is certainly some merit to the idea that if you filter out based on acheivement, you'll have better peers to compete against in school, making you learn more, it doesn't quite work out that way because of legacy admissions. People get let in for nothing more than the fact that their parent went to the school. So even the claim of high caliber students from "selective" admissions is a fraud, because one can be low caliber if you have some other factor, like a legacy.

But what ultimately bugs me about the whole thing is that it only measures quality of inputs, it does NOT measure any quality of the school itself. I mean, sure, you graduate lots of smart people if you only let smart people in to begin with, but so what? Smart people graduate as smart people no matter what school they go to. It has nothing to do with the school - its because they are smart. Duh.

The true measure of a school should not be the input, it should be the difference between the input and the output - that would show truly what the school actually does. But schools don't want to have to compete on that, because then theoretically some fourth tier college from nowhere can end up being number one and the prestige-worshipping folks can't have that! I remember at one point that there was an objective criteria, unbiased ranking done of law schools, and the usual number one and two for Harvard and Yale ended up in the teens. Guess what happened after that? They changed the criteria, made the criteria secret, and then ranked them all again, and miraculously, Harvard and Yale were back at the top again. Basically, all rankings are rigged to make certain schools come out on top. It is all a load of bullshit.

And then you get students all falling over themselves to get into the "prestigious" schools - spending a ton of money to do so. When really, you can get just as good an education at just about any accredited school - it is all about the effort YOU put into it, ultimately, no matter where you go. Which means (assuming you have good enough grades to have a chance to get in) unless you have some special reason to go to Harvard (basically to get hot political connections, for I can't think of any other good reason to go there) you're better off saving $100,000 and going to a fourth tier law school that you probably will be able to get a scholarship for on merit alone, than you would going to Harvard, because you'll graduate without debt and then you'll be much freer to start your life with a clean slate. That's what I did. Sure, you don't have the prestige factor. But so what. I don't think any level of prestige is worth it for me to fork over $100,000 or more in cash. Sorry. And I got the same education as someone at Harvard - we learn the same law, the same cases, the same procedures. Hell, I probably learned more because I focused on the practical and a lot of the "big" schools have an awful lot of fluffy theory you can take after the first year which may make for a nice, obscure law journal article, but won't actually be of any use in the real practice of law.

I'm going to encourage my kids to get the best deal they can for an education - better to get a lower tier degree with no debt than to get a higher-tier one with a lot of debt. No one much cares about your school past your first job anyway, most of the time. In my case, I got exactly the job I wanted right out of law school, so I really would have gotten no additional value had I spent $100K at some high-tier school. Heck, since I worked almost all the way through school, something I couldn't do at any of the ivy-leagers, I would have lost the equivalent of over $250,000 if I had gone to one of those schools.

Education is ultimately worth what you put into it. A fancy school doesn't teach you any better than a cheap one. Because the main important component there is you. Why not save your money? Lots of people end up with degrees, still can't find a job, and then they have huge debt. Might as well minimize that debt as much as possible. Heck, degrees in many cases don't mean much, though HR departments still require them anyway as screening devices. But that is a whole different issue - whether even a cheap degree is really worth it. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, you still need one to get certain jobs even though, objectively, that's ridiculous. Which again, is why it is a good idea to get that otherwise useless piece of paper as cheaply as possible. Then you can enjoy your life as an adult much more, starting out debt free, or much closer to that than you would have if you spent a ton of money for your college.

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