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Which College Is Best? What Are the Objective Indicators?

Debt Free U Cover Image Zac BissonnetteZac Bissonnette, author of Debt Free U:  How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents, continues his series of guest posts today by addressing first the woeful lack of objective indicators of educational quality in our colleges and universities, and second the value of starting one’s educational experience at a community college.

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Can we really tell which colleges are “better” than others in some objective way?
No. This is really the greatest lie that the entire college industry is built on. People who have explored colleges objectively — i.e. people who aren’t trying to spit out rankings to sell magazines full of car ads and guidebooks — have concluded that there just isn’t information available to determine whether one college leads to better outcomes than another.

A big part of the reason for that, I think, is that we’re talking about 18 year-olds, not six year-olds. Your kid is already basically an adult, and the idea that there’s some magical institution that will turn your stoner kid into an honors student is a myth. Your kid’s college experience will be determined by what he brings to it, not which institution he attends. Colleges are a lot more similar than they are different: a bunch of kids — some cool and some not cool — and a bunch of professors — some cool and some not cool.

 

You sing the praises of community colleges, and I agree that they are woefully underappreciated in our society.  What sorts of kids would you say should take seriously the idea of attending community college?
According to Marty Nemko, of students who graduate in the bottom 40% of their high school class and enroll at a four-year college, 76% won’t earn a degree within 8 1/2 years.

So community college is a good way to do a budget-minded test run if your kid is sort of college-marginal in terms of grades and motivation.

But community college is also a fantastic option for anyone on a budget. In the fall of 2007, Amherst College visited 22 community colleges to recruit top students. 9 out of 11 transfers that year came from community colleges. In 2006, 26% Stanford’s transfer students came from community colleges.

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To amplify Zac’s point a bit, it is true that there are no real, objective data that can prove–with any sort of scientific certainty–which colleges are better.  There are no standards.  Different colleges teach different curricula.  Some bemoan the lack of standardization in K-12 education in the United States.  But K-12 teachers in America are singing in unison in comparison to the educational cacophony at the tertiary level. Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education under George Bush II, made some noises about the need for measuring educational quality among our colleges and universities.  But the efforts went nowhere.

So we’re left only with this:  each individual has to decide for him or herself which college is best–for him or her.  It’s a matter of opinion, of “feel,” of impressions, and best guesses.  This is the value of an educational consultant.

Further, as Zac points out, it is sometimes the role of an educational consultant to help students and families consider all the options available–including community college.  While community college may not be best for everyone, kids who have not performed well in high school (for whatever reason) and families who want to save some dough would do well to consider starting at a community college.

I like Zac’s book because it makes us stop and think.  His contrarian viewpoints are useful in getting students and families to truly consider all their priorities.  For Zac, economic priorities are paramount.  And probably for most, this ordering is appropriate.  One thing is for sure: Zac Bissonnette is going to have quite an impact on college counseling in the United States.

Thanks for agreeing to appear on my blog, Zac!

 

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant

 

 

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