OK, so we don’t really know what your dream school is, so maybe you should really try to go to your dream school if it is a good fit for you. What we do caution against is following an emotional pull or attachment to an elite school you mistakenly believe to be the ticket to success. These include Ivy League and other prestigious schools that commonly make it to the top 100 in the US News rankings (and even other ranking sites like our own). Yes, these are great schools, but the reality is only 2% of students will make it into the top 100 schools, and some of those students who do go would fare as well (or even better) in other good schools that can do a better job supporting them, often at a lower cost.
Avoid the Lure of the Ivy League
Plenty of research concludes that while going to (and actually graduating from) college is valuable, where you go does not matter as much.
Economists Dale and Kruger completed a study which compared students who were accepted and attended an Ivy League university to those who applied to an Ivy League, but chose to attend another school. There was no difference in the outcomes of the students.
A student with a 1,400 SAT score who went to Penn State but applied to Penn earned as much, on average, as a student with a 1,400 who went to Penn.
Frank Bruni would agree with the conclusion of this study, as he writes in his new book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be that parents and students are focused on the wrong thing when it comes to choosing a college. Success can come to any smart student no matter what college they attend. Families that go crazy focusing on the brand of the institution end up spending a lot of wasted time and money and possibly hurting their student in the process.
Bruni said a big reason for writing the book was that when he surveyed the accomplished people he has known and interviewed, there didn't seem to be any "exaggerated concentration" of people coming from the most selective colleges.
Malcolm Gladwell makes the argument in “David and Goliath” that many students are better off in their second choice schools. Students who end up going to very competitive universities often suffer from Little Fish—Big Pond syndrome. Elite schools can destroy a bright student’s confidence, as they simply do not measure up to the slightly brighter students who surround them. Many of these extremely smart students would be better off going to slightly less competitive universities as they would get more attention and support.
Rarely do we stop and consider… whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest ... The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them.
It is worth noting that Dale and Druker's study did find that an exception to the pattern was found in minority and low-income students. These students were found to have significant advantages in graduating from an Ivy League school. The author's speculate this is because of the networks these students are exposed to through their education that they would not have otherwise been able to take advantage of.
Where Should You Go Instead?
We recommend using rankings only as a starting point. The best way to choose a college that's right for you is to pick a school that matches your needs and wants academically, socially, and financially. How do you find out what your best fit school is? Click here to get started finding your perfect match!