Choose the “Best Fit” rather than the “Best” college

By Eela Dubey, Co-Founder, Edufund India and Namita Mehta, President, The Red Pen

Most students pick their colleges based on rankings, which isn’t always the right strategy. Instead, they need to find the college that is the “best fit” for them.

In India and globally, there are a staggering number of higher education institutions that offer world-class education. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-19, there are about 993 universities in the country, out of which 127 are deemed an Institute of National Importance. In the US, this number is significantly higher, with about 4,000 degree-granting postsecondary institutions, with US News only focusing on 1,400 for their ranking table and QS only including 160 in their World University Rankings list. The UK, on the other hand, has approximately 315 degree-granting universities and colleges listed on UCAS.

This means you have choices. Many, many choices! Despite this, students opt to apply to only a handful of highly selective colleges. Since they are highly ranked on popular university lists, they are perceived as the “best”. The truth is that prospective students are fueling their hyper selectivity. As more and more students apply to the same group of colleges year-on-year, they make the admit rate for these institutions smaller, leading to them becoming even more selective. The recent Netflix documentary, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal that primarily focused on the recent college admissions scandal, also touched on how certain colleges are still attracting the majority of applicants. For example, over the last eight years, Harvard University has seen a steady increase in the number of applicants. From 34,295 applicants for the class of 2018, to approximately 57,000 for the class of 2025, the college has seen a 60 per cent increase!

And despite the pandemic, The New York Times reported that “Waiving standardized test requirements during the pandemic brought more hopefuls to the Ivy League and large state schools, while less-selective colleges face an alarming drop.”

The question students need to ask is, “Which college is going to give me the education I need to reach my goal?” They need to understand how to choose the “best fit” college rather than the “best” college (which have been touted by rank tables and is based on common perception). There is no easy way of finding the right higher education institution for yourself. You need to research to understand each college’s ethos, its USPs and see how its courses and offerings fit into your future goals.

Learning about several colleges is time-consuming and hard work. Rank tables are often the go-to resource when families and students begin the college selection process. It does make sense on some level; “My child wants to study engineering and he/she has been academically successful in physics and mathematics. Let me go and check the top 10 colleges for engineering in the world.” No doubt this is a great starting point, but most often, this is where the research ends and a “dream, target, safety” list is quickly drawn up from the “top 50” options.

Also, you need to understand what metrics each list is using. Universities are awarded ranks based on criteria, such as the amount of funding the faculty has secured, which may not have any impact on undergraduate teaching or a student’s undergraduate experience. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings for example, “judge research-intensive universities across all their core missions: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.” The research area accounts for 30 per cent and includes reputation survey (18 per cent), research income and research productivity (both at 6 per cent). Conversely, for US News, faculty resources accounts for only 20 per cent, which is broken down into five parameters–class size (8 per cent), faculty salary (7 per cent), faculty with the highest degree in their fields (3 per cent), student-faculty ratio and proportion of faculty who are full time (both at 1 per cent). This is why a parent and student’s research should not end here. They should deep-dive into the size, location, syllabus, job opportunities and more before they come up with a list.

“Brand value” is another aspect to which students and parents attach a lot of importance. The brand value of a college varies from region to region and is created by community opinion on the reputation of a university. In my experience, I have seen that at times, a college’s brand value is directly proportional to the number of years it has been marketing in that particular region. The more consistently the college has marketed to an audience, the more likely students will apply, enrol, graduate and then come back and tell their peers about their experiences. When there are sufficient alumni from that college in your immediate network (and they are successful in some capacity), the brand value of that college automatically goes up and without even realising it, prospective students will have that college on their list. The University of Warwick in the UK is a perfect case study for this. It was one of the first British universities in the UK to accept Indian local curricula such as the HSC and ISC for admission. As they were among the first, many students flocked to the university. As a result, it has a strong brand value in India.

It is important to note that your “best fit” university might not be the same for you and your best friend, even if you both are interested in the same major. For example, you might benefit from a college that has substantial experiential opportunities such as the co-op opportunities at The University of Waterloo, where you have the option of working in the field. Your friend, however, might prefer significantly more traditional classes, that may not include any work exposure as a part of the curriculum. Understanding which learning environment you will thrive in is crucial!

With the Covid-19 pandemic, world-class education can essentially become available to everyone who wants it. Even after the pandemic, you can access professors doing cutting edge research on a topic of your choice, learn from them and gain the skills you need to succeed. As the world becomes more connected and the next generation of learners become clear about their strengths and goals, choosing a college or learning programme that will optimise their growth and potential will be critical.

In the next article in this two-part series, we will talk about what components you need to look out for when you are crafting your college list. You can bet that it goes beyond rank tables and popular opinion

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