Looking Beyond the Top 20
A ranking will never reveal all of a college's treasures
Are the numbers getting you down, the 10- or 12-to-1 odds against admission to the most selective colleges? Things could be worse. You could be a Ph.D. looking for a job. For more than 25 years, competition for most faculty positions has made acceptance to the Ivy League look easy. A single position in physics drew up to 1,000 applications in the early 1990s, according to Edwin Goldin, director of career services at the American Institute of Physics. A recent Ph.D. in American literature reports receiving rejection letters from departments with 500 to 700 applicants; it took him several years to find a community-college job.
The challenges faced by job-seeking faculty have a bright side for college applicants. For years, schools deep in the first tier and below it have been able to hire candidates who in the 1950s and 1960s would have gone to work at a top-ranked school. Many are attracting first-rate students too. Down the road from Princeton at Rider University, which was founded as a business college, I've met people like Linda Materna, a wonderful specialist in Spanish drama (who has taught at Princeton too), and James Dickinson, a pathbreaking sociologist whose interests range from economic development to the arts and urbanism. The California State system boasts renowned scholars like the classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson at Fresno and my graduate-school friend, the music historian William Weber, at Long Beach.
At the same time, even the most selective schools have decided they can't afford to be uniformly strong. Princeton's department of geosciences opted in the 1980s to discontinue vertebrate paleontology, donated most of its fossils to Yale, and focused instead on other earth sciences. MIT has a writing program; Caltech doesn't. The University of Utah's computer-science department doesn't have the robotics of Carnegie Mellon but is famous for graphics. While the U.S. News ratings are an excellent measure of many qualities that matter in education, a school's overall rank should be far less important in your analysis of where to go than the details of what a school offers to you.
One result of specialization and the trickle down of talent is that hyperselective schools are not the only ones with world-class programs. Geography is a school, not just a department, at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.; Harvard abolished its geography department decades ago. Rutgers has a whole school of communication and information studies; Princeton has no department in either field. Rensselaer Polytechnic is a leader in lighting studies, Virginia Tech in human-machine interaction; you won't find comparable programs at Caltech. Yes, the Top 20 offer more good elective courses and generally have better libraries and laboratories. But thanks to the Internet, even small rural schools can offer formidable numbers of online journals.
A true gap? Graduates of highly selective colleges do make more money. But they seem to be successful partly because their families are more affluent and better connected than the average, and partly because they have strengths that would have gone with them to any college. A recent study by Stacy Dale of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Alan B. Krueger of Princeton revealed that among 1976 high school graduates accepted at both highly selective and moderately selective colleges, those attending the latter were actually earning slightly more than those who chose the top schools: an average of $91,200 in 1995 versus $90,100. (Students from lower-income families did significantly better after attending elite colleges.)
What do these trends mean for a student researching colleges today? Plan to explore your options widely. You're probably going to change careers several times, so you'll want to consider taking subjects you didn't in high school. A strong general education will support you as you advance in your original field, or change. Are the available student activities ones that matter to you? Ask where recent graduates have continued their education. Franklin and Marshall, which accepts more than half its applicants, is known for strong science teaching and excellent medical-school placement. Above all, don't listen to anxietymongers. Selective schools aren't and never were the gatekeepers of opportunity. You're the one who holds the keys.
This story appears in the September 11, 2000 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.