Okay, so it was interesting to see that the most selective colleges don’t have a monopoly on large numbers of students with high test scores, right? But there are many other factors that influence a student’s college experience, and we have data on some of them, too. Let’s look at how colleges of different levels of selectivity differ on some of the criteria used by US News and Princeton Review to rate the colleges.

I’ve selected ten of the most selective universities, which I’ve labelled Group 1; ten schools slightly less selective that are often thought of as “safe schools” by the strongest students constitute Group 2; and ten colleges that almost all applicants to the most selective schools would consider sure bets are in Group 3.

GROUP 1

Brown

Cornell

Darmouth

Duke

Harvard

MIT

Penn

Princeton

Stanford

Yale

GROUP 2

Wesleyan

U Michigan

Middlebury

Wiiliam and Mary

Tufts

Rensselear

Villanova

Colgate

U Southern California

Vassar

GROUP 3

Tulane

Fordham

Bucknell

Elon

Boston U

Worcester Polytech

Lafayette

College of New Jersey

UC Santa Barbara

Kenyon

We’re going to compare these three groups on some of the measures US News and Princeton Review use to create their rankings/ratings. We’ll see that–while there are measurable differences based on the selectivity of colleges–the differences that are implied by ranked lists are not nearly as great as people often assume based on the distances between schools on those lists. And hopefully, seeing how small the real distance is between colleges, you’ll begin to conclude that those differences certainly aren’t great enough to be worth risking your children’s and your physical and emotional well-being.

First up, the percentage of students who return for sophomore year, used by US News as part of their ranking formula. This is a pretty good measure of how much students like a college, and it will also impact your children’s experience on campus. It’s preferable to be in a college where you have a larger percentage of your classmates coming back, right?

Return Sophomore Year

Group 1                                                   98%

Group 2                                                   96%

Group 3                                                   93%

It looks like there is a small difference between the three groups on this measure, but—in my opinion anyway—not enough of one to be worth considering strongly when choosing a college.

Smaller class sizes are also very desirable, and US News uses this as one of its measures, too. They report the percentage of classes with fewer than 20 students, and it looks like again the higher ranked colleges offer a slightly better experience. Again though, it’s arguable how much of a difference those few extra smaller classes will make in a student’s experience.

Classes under 20

Group 1                                                             69%

Group 2                                                             61%

Group 3                                                             59%

Importantly, if you expand it to look at the percentage of classes under 30, the difference disappears.

Classes Under 30

Group 1                                                   80%

Group 2                                                   81%

Group 3                                                   83%

At the other end of the spectrum, US News reports the percentage of classes with 50 students or more. Interestingly, here the advantage goes to the lower ranked schools, which makes one wonder if some colleges are paying for more classes on the smaller end with more classes on the larger end.

Classes 50+

Group 1                                                   11%

Group 2                                                   6%

Group 3                                                   6%

There are, of course, many arguments about how good a measure of academic ability the SAT and ACT are, and also how well it can predict success in college. Regardless of where the truth may lie on this issue, we know that many folks, including those at US News, measure the quality of an education at any given college at least partly by the achievement of its students on these tests.

US News uses the middle 50% of test scores for colleges as part of its rating system. If we assume a normal distribution within this range, then we can compare median scores at our three groups of colleges.

Median SAT score

Group 1                                                   1496

Group 2                                                   1418

Group 3                                                   1350

As you might guess, the median SAT score shows a large number difference between our different groups, with the most selective colleges 78 points above Group 2, and Group 2 another 68 points above Group 3. These are huge differences, right? More selective schools obviously have significantly smarter students.

Well, not exactly.

Have you ever looked at College Board’s graph of the distribution of SAT scores? It’s important to understand how they’re distributed if you’re going to make conclusions about differences in scores.

SAT score                                                Percentile

       1500                                                           99

       1400                                                           97

       1300                                                           91

       1200                                                           81

       1100                                                           67

As you might guess, a score of 1500 lands you solidly in the top 1% of test takers. But did you know that those with a 1400 are in the top 3%? And that those with a 1300 are still firmly in the top 10%?

Knowing this, let’s look at those differences between Groups 1, 2 and 3 again.

Median SAT percentile

Group 1                                                   99

Group 2                                                   98

Group 3                                                   94

Wow, right?!! Sure, the average student at a Group 1 college is in the top 1%, but the distance between them and average students at schools in Groups 2 and 3 isn’t nearly as big as it appears when you look at the scores, with Group 3 being only 5 percentile points behind Group 1. How much of a difference will that really make in a student’s experience?

US News also gives weight to the percentage of professors who hold the highest degree in their field. I’ve never considered this a great measure of how good a teacher someone will be, but I’ve included it here so we can compare it to Princeton Review’s survey of students’ opinions of their professors’ ability to teach.

Professors with Highest Degree

Group 1                                                   92%

Group 2                                                   86%

Group 3                                                   81%

As you can see, the differences between groups are noticeable.

But are they significant? Not in formal research’s sense of significance, but rather in terms of the impact on your child’s education. Yes, those with the highest degrees are almost always going to be among those with the highest intellect and knowledge base in their field. But with under 2 percent of the population holding a PhD and only 12% holding an advanced degree of any type according to the US Census, aren’t we nitpicking to make distinctions between colleges that have 92% and those that 81% of these extremely capable individuals on their faculty? Most college professors are extremely bright and knowledgeable.

Given this, doesn’t the question become which are best at sharing that knowledge with others? Aren’t the students’ opinions of those professors more important than which advanced degree they have? Doesn’t this matter more when considering the quality of education at any given institution? Isn’t the inspiration students feel to delve deeper into an area of study important to an education? Even if you only view college as a means to a career, isn’t a person’s enthusiasm for their work critical to their success in that field?

In addition to providing the basics about each school, Princeton Review’s annual Best Colleges books are an excellent source of students’ opinions of colleges with regard to numerous factors, including the quality of their professors. Over 100,000 students fill out their questionnaires each year, which include both ratings scales and areas for written reviews. The result is an in-depth look at what the consumer thinks of the product, a critical component of ratings that many others don’t take into consideration.

And student opinions, it turns out, support my suspicion that higher academic achievement doesn’t necessarily make one better at imparting what one knows to others.

Professors Good at Teaching?

Group 1                                                   80

Group 2                                                   86

Group 3                                                   85

Data Source: Princeton Review Best 382 Colleges

On a scale of 60-99 used by Princeton Review, students at Groups 2 and 3 rate their professors more interesting than students in Group 1 do. I suspect some of that difference is due to higher expectations from those in Group 1, but still…..there’s not much difference in the quality of teaching between the three groups.

Want to know where you can get more bang for your buck with regard to better instruction? You can probably guess.

Professors Good at Teaching?

Top 20 National Universities                                         80

Top 20 Liberal Arts Colleges                                          94

Data Source: US News and World Report Best Colleges 2018 and Princeton Review Best 382 Colleges

Yup, liberal arts colleges. Taking the top 20 national universities and the top 20 liberal arts colleges on the US News lists, I calculated the average rating given to professors by students for each group based on Princeton Review’s data. I’m pretty confident the same would be true if you went further down the rankings, too. Interesting, huh?

Okay, for the final comparison of our three groups of schools, I looked at ratings of overall quality of life in Princeton Review’s Best Colleges book. This measure, again on a scale of 60-99, is a combination of students’ opinions of their campus, dorm comfort and food quality, among other factors.

Quality of Life

Group 1                                                   86

Group 2                                                   90

Group 3                                                   90

Data Source: Princeton Review Best 382 Colleges

As you can see, the advantage once again goes to groups 2 and 3. And once again, I think the expectations are likely higher for those in Group 1, so there’s probably not much of a difference in how much students like their experience outside the classroom.

Let’s go back and take a look at the composition of these 3 groups again, just so you can have it clearly in your minds at which schools there’s really not that much of a difference on so many factors.

GROUP 1

Brown

Cornell

Dartmouth

Duke

Harvard

MIT

Penn

Princeton

Stanford

Yale

GROUP 2

Wesleyan

U Michigan

Middlebury

William and Mary

Tufts

Rensselear

Villanova

Colgate

U Southern California

Vassar

GROUP 3

Tulane

Fordham

Bucknell

Elon

Boston U

Worcester Polytech

Lafayette

College of New Jersey

UC Santa Barbara

Kenyon

Given all of the above, is it really worth the risk of all the negatives that can come with chronic stress in order to maybe gain a slight advantage in earning admission to a college that’s a bit higher ranked? Sure, Group 1 is filled with phenomenal places for exceptionally bright, ambitious, hard-working, talented students to get an education. But Groups 2 and 3 are pretty darn awesome, too.