Why Your Dream School is Probably a Bad Idea

Why Your Dream School is Probably a Bad Idea

Choosing where to attend college is, for many, the first major choice of one's adult life. For grades preschool through 12, most are sent to public schools determined by location or shepherded to private schools of their parents' choice.

Finding the ideal college to attend, as an individual, is a highly subjective experience. There's no reference book that definitively tells you which college is the best for you and why.

The problem with college rankings

Ok, you might be saying to yourself, "but there is a comprehensive college ranking guide, and it's published by US News & World Report. They're pretty reliable, aren't they?"

To be perfectly honest, no. The US News & World Report College Rankings are not how you should determine which institution to attend.

Actually, that statement deserves a qualifier. US News' College Rankings could be helpful in making you college decision, but only if you value the same factors that the list is determined by. Here's a breakdown of the factors US News uses to rank colleges and universities. Keep in mind these are weighted factors that contribute to a score on a 100 point scale, and that this scale applies to "national universities," which are 4-year institutions with a full range of undergrad programs, plus master's and doctorate tracks.

  1. Undergraduate academic reputation, 22.5%
  2. Graduation and freshman retention rates, 20%
  3. Faculty resources, 20%
  4. Student selectivity, 15%
  5. Financial resources, 10%
  6. Graduation rate performance, 7.5%
  7. Alumni giving, 5%

Part of why these rankings are flawed is they're designed to rank a bunch of things that aren't alike. For example, the University of Delaware, a public university set in a college town with an enrollment of nearly 18,000, comes in at #81, right before the Stevens Institute of Technology, an urban university with an enrollment of 2,500, most of which are engineering students. The larger point: Delaware and Stevens are ranked right next to each other despite having little in common and attracting different kinds of students.

student loan debt

Flickr / thisisbossi

The real #1 determining factor? Money.

There's also a more obvious reason US News' rankings are flawed: they don't account for price of tuition. For a lot of students - myself included - that was THE deciding factor. And I'm not alone.

According to the Project on Student Debt, 70 percent of college students graduate with loan debt, with an average outstanding balance of $29,400. That's enough to put a down payment on a house and buy a car.

Big Fish, Small Pond

"Dream school" is a common phrase among would-be undergrad students. A dream school can have different meanings to different people, but, generally speaking, your dream school is the best - meaning most highly regarded in academics - school you can get into.

Personally, my dream school was a large, public, out-of-state university with a high tuition rate. My secondary option was also public but in-state, which meant significantly lower tuition. I wasn't entirely sold on my non-dream school, but my family urged me to check out the campus and get a feel for the place. It turned out being one of the best decisions I ever made, and I knew within a half hour of being there that my non-dream school was a place where I could thrive.

Putting aside your dream school and looking at alternatives is something Canadian writer and psychologist Malcolm Gladwell talks about at length - the idea of shooting for the absolute highest star and choosing your college based on prestige and name recognition.

On the surface, that almost sounds like selling yourself short, but it's an idea worth considering. Choosing to attend an elite college make you, more or less, a small fish in a big pond. By attending the Ivy League university that placed you on its waiting list before admitting you, you're drastically minimizing your chance of standing out. By choosing a less prestigious or smaller university you maximize your chance of standing out, and you minimize the risk that you'll be in over your head, grow discouraged, and alter your career path or give up completely.

college scholarships

Flickr / b0jangles

Follow The Money

Another reason your dream school might be a bad idea: it's not as likely to offer you free money, especially if it's a school you barely got into. Your "safe" choice - the school you knew you'd be able to get into before you even applied - realizes that, yeah, if you go there, you'll be a big fish in a small pond. Guess what? They like that! If you're a big enough fish coming out of high school, perhaps they've already offered you a scholarship. If not, do everything you can to stand out and earn a scholarship after your first semester or year of school. It'll be much easier to make a name for yourself at your safe school.

Going for a less prestigious school likely makes more financial sense, but if you truly have your heart set on your dream school, at least stop to consider the possibilities of your non-dream school.

As Gladwell says, "rarely do we stop and consider whether the most prestigious of institutions is really in our best interest. The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them."

While this isn't true in every case, you should give your secondary options a serious look, especially if they offer scholarships and the opportunity to stand out. Who doesn't like free money?

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