College selection has to go much beyond running after recognized names
There are over 4,000 accredited universities in the United States. US News tracks about 1,400 colleges for its annual ranking bonanza, which in itself is a deep-seated problem, and there are just eight Ivy League Colleges. Throw in MIT and Stanford (MS in common parlance) – that makes it 10. Sadly, the obsession among students and parents alike, and I know I may be over-generalizing, on 10 out of 4,000 (0.25%) or 10 out of 1,400 (0.71%) is neither healthy nor prudent.
Indian students have been coming to study in American universities for decades. It was and continues to be dominated by the graduate students. The westward journey for an undergraduate degree is a relatively newer phenomenon – probably about a decade old – and got serious traction only in last 5-7 years. The accelerating trend is largely driven by a couple of demographic and economic factors – growing disposable income among Indian upper-middle class and both the willingness and ability to spend upwards of INR 50 lakhs per annum (~$70,000) towards education, the exponential challenge of getting admissions in top-class Indian institutions (largely IITs, top national engineering and medical colleges and a handful of liberal arts colleges that still offer quality education) and a new breed of urban, private high schools that oriented their education to prepare students more for admissions in US undergrad programs than one in St. Stephens or Presidency College or IITs. Topping up these demographic shifts is the growing desire of the US universities to capture new markets beyond mainland China, South Korea and Singapore as steady sources of quality applicants with the economic means to generally pay full cost of education.
An interesting conundrum of this shift towards US undergraduate education is that Indian parents and qualified high schoolers are wholly underprepared to deal with the demands of the admission process. Because it is unlike any other that they have dealt before, and have very little similarity with graduate admissions process where some historical data points existed. On top of that, misinformation and in many cases, blatantly illegal promise of “guaranteeing admissions” by ignorant or unscrupulous consultants make it a nightmare for well-meaning families. The holy grail of US undergrad admissions is “best fit”, a concept that is nearly non-existent in an Indian context. The closest equivalence of “best fit” in India are – rank in the admissions test and prestige of the college. In the absence of an admissions test (SAT is NOT an admissions test), we picked the only available parameter – “prestige”. Hence, the obsession with the name brand – read Ivies and Ivy-likes – and resulting lack of understanding of what “best fit” truly means. In many cases, this lack of understanding creates outright derision and wholesale dismissal of the philosophy of admissions. None of these serves the parents or students well. If anything, it actually moves them away from the end game, which is – attend an institution that fits the student’s interest, abilities and economic means the best and offers the best education in an environment where the student can truly thrive, not just in the classroom but also in the community.
Having assisted many students (friends & family), closely watched this process over the last many years out of pure personal and academic interest and speaking to top-class High School College Counselors and College Admissions Officers, what appears to be the biggest missing piece for most aspiring high school seniors – juniors if you are smartly planning ahead – is a balanced college list. A “balanced” college list is exactly what the name suggests – a list that has a healthy dose of highly aspirational colleges to handful of colleges that can be considered “safety” and three more tiers in between. And do all that without making the list any longer than 12; though 10 is ideal. The list does not begin with “Top 10 Colleges” from US News or TIMES Ranking of Princeton Review. In fact, it is the worst place to begin with. It does not begin with SAT scores as well because increasingly SAT is becoming optional or less determinant of admissions decisions. The true beginning of the process is bit of self-reflection and honest dialog between the student, the parent and the counselor (if there is one) about what the student truly intends to do, what excites him / her, what s/he is looking to gain from four years of college experience and what area of study s/he is genuinely interested in. The last part can often be unclear at this stage and that’s perfectly fine. It is also not necessary that what excites the parent must excite the student!
Once that conversation creates an outline of academic and other non-academic parameters like location, diversity of student body, inter-disciplinary nature of the programs, athletic profile of the college (yes, those matter), the research to create the “balanced list” begins. All the reputable rankings can become an input, not the sole determinant, to the list but what really helps is hours of browsing through the college websites, program outlines, course curriculum and student profiles. If done right and with integrity, it truly becomes a process of discovery for the student and the family and more often than not, they find a purpose of pursuing undergrad in the United States as against chasing a trail of so-called prestige and hearsay. A perfect example will be for an undergrad business program. If the Wharton School in UPenn is the only ticket to the Wall Street banks, then we are making an implicit yet completely incorrect assumption that the entire financial services industry can accommodate only 600 business majors or look no further beyond Philadelphia. Careful research will show that there are several top undergrad business schools that offer far stronger programs on financial engineering which are in higher demand than the traditional finance program that Wharton is rightfully one of the best places to study.
The trade-offs to create the balanced list are an excruciating yet illuminating exercise. The fundamentals of a balanced list are two-fold – the list must have proportionate representation of the colleges by the degree of difficulty in securing admissions and that the student must feel “happy” to attend any of the colleges on the list irrespective of its tiering. These two parameters almost feel counter-intuitive but a good self-assessment, an honest dialog with counselor / parents and deep research by the student that really brings the excellence of many colleges to the surface can do the magic. Take this example. Traditional thinking would dictate that “Ivy + MS” is the best place for someone interested to study Biology or go on to do graduate studies in Genetics. While these colleges are indeed well-endowed, University of Delaware, a large state university on the East Coast, has heavily invested in creating a Genetics program at an undergrad level and has been incredibly generous in offering merit scholarship to international students, which is a rarity.
So… if you are looking to explore undergraduate education in the United States and you are in the 9th or 10th grade (it’s never too early to start), start thinking about what “your balanced list” would look like. Do not worry about who went to what college from your school or neighborhood or your extended family. It matters very little, if anything at all. Remember that eight Ivy League colleges or about 15 Ivy-like institutions do not define the American college experience. Remember that “best fit” is not just a nice jargon or esoteric concept; it is possible to crack that code with appropriate research and guidance. It’s about time students and parents in India set aside the ranking table and Ivy obsession and explore the path of “best fit” through self-reflection and objective research.
Note: The options expressed in this article are entirely personal.