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College prestige privileged over best fit

The fixation on the college “rankings” that come out every year has never made much sense to me. Why do people pay so much attention to arbitrary lists, when the true value of a college education depends on factors specific to each individual student? Why is there such a strong desire, especially amongst the nation’s best and brightest high school students, to attend the most prestigious, most selective or otherwise highest ‘ranked’ school?

Our competative academic culture emphasizes prestige above other factors in selecting a college. I believe that this fixation is not beneficial to the students, their experiences in college, the institutions themselves and overall the state of higher education in 2016. Yet, sadly, the trend appears to be increasing. According to a survey from UCLA, 70 percent of 2015 freshmen believed that reputation was “very important” when it came to choosing a college to attend. This is the highest level the survey has ever recorded since it started in 1967. The fact that so many students find reputation as one of the most important factors in choosing a school is largely believed to be a byproduct of the rise of these college rankings.

I find this notion – that it’s extremely important to attend a school with high reputation and prestige – as not necessarily true, and possibly detrimental to higher education as a whole as well as many students’ individual experiences in college. This is because such a fixation on prestige encourages students to bypass a school that might be a better fit for a school that is higher ranked.

The writer and well-known intellectual Malcolm Gladwell makes a very compelling case along these lines in his most recent book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Gladwell tells us the tale of Caroline Sacks, a student from the Washington D.C. area who sailed through her high school curriculum, never receiving a grade less than an A and finishing near the top of her class. She applied and was accepted to her dream school, Brown University, where she chose to attend, rather than the University of Maryland, which was her backup school.

Caroline was passionate in the sciences, and had ambitions of pursuing a career in science. However, she ran into academic difficulties starting her freshman year in chemistry and organic chemistry classes. Despite being an intelligent, hard-working student who thrived in high school, she found the material tough to understand, and began to lose confidence because she was no longer one of the smartest students in the class. To use Gladwell’s terms, she was no longer a “big fish in a small pond,” but rather a small fish in a very big pond, as Brown is one of the most selective schools in the country.

Gladwell argues that had Caroline attended her back up school, the University of Maryland, she would not have lost confidence in her abilities to the extent that she did at Brown. He posits that the reason she struggled so much was because of a phenomenon sociologists call “relative deprivation,” which is the idea that we develop our impressions of how we are doing in comparison to our peers rather than the population as a whole. At Brown, Caroline’s peers were some of the brightest minds in the nation, and even though she struggled, she was surely still in an extremely high percentile of ability in science for the general population. Yet the effects of relative deprivation, due to Caroline attending Brown, were feelings that she was not good enough to pursue a technical subject such as science.

Gladwell’s main point is that while some individuals may thrive in an environment such as Brown, others who still have a high level of aptitude and work ethic may not because of relative deprivation. In other words, some students might do better as a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

So what’s the takeaway from this story? College rankings do matter to the extent that a student wants to know which schools have the “biggest ponds’ – which schools are most selective and prestigious. But I happen to agree with Malcolm Gladwell – our society fixates on the big pond far too much, and many of us are better off in the smaller pond.

Owen Sandercox ’19 ( is from Sandy Hook, Conn. He majors in economics and statistics.

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