Jay Mathews (c) 2014, The Washington Post. This is an exciting week for college football freaks like me. Our nation’s first four-team playoff for the national championship (hopefully to be replaced eventually by an eight-team playoff) begins New Year’s Day. It teaches a lesson that goes beyond sports to how we rate colleges and how we should feel when the most highly ranked reject us.
Many high school seniors are glum because they just got bad news from first-choice colleges that their applications under early action or early decision programs were deferred or rejected. In many cases, they shunned state universities to apply to private schools that earn high rankings from U.S. News & World Report or other lists, the schools with the highest rejection rates. That is the insanity at the core of our college admissions system: We lust for the schools that are most likely to say no.
What’s wrong with wanting to go to one of the state universities participating in this week’s football clashes? Research, common sense and our own life experiences show that a college’s rank adds little if any value to our lives. Researchers Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger (who was once chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers) found little correlation between financial success and the selectivity of one’s college for people with certain character traits, such as persistence, imagination and energy. They were doing well no matter where they got degrees.
We tend to downgrade the academic merits of state universities such as the ones competing for the football championship this year: Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State. Their acceptance rates are too high to merit top ranking in U.S. News. Alabama’s acceptance rate is 57 percent, and its rank among national universities is 88. Oregon’s rate is 74 percent and its rank 106. Florida State’s numbers are 57 percent and 95. Ohio State’s are 56 percent and 54. They don’t compare to the top three U.S. News schools: Princeton with a 7 percent acceptance rate, Harvard with 6 percent and Yale with 7 percent.
Yet the four football powers share characteristics that lead to valuable college experiences for bright and energetic students. They have talented faculties, good facilities, critical masses of academically ambitious students and successful alumni. Public universities are among the country’s most successful institutions, with foreign students pouring in and even many of my ex-newspaper friends finding jobs there.
Their football success is tarnished in some minds by the game’s violence and big spending, but many students with little athletic talent find such schools help them follow their dreams of sports-oriented careers in management, medicine and journalism. State universities’ extracurricular opportunities are an asset not well-measured by the college rankings. I got much less out of the courses at my college than I did working for the student newspaper.
The most persuasive advocate for giving state universities more respect is Zac Bissonnette, author of “Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents.” Having built his brokerage account to five figures by the ninth grade, he could have gotten into an Ivy League college easily. He picked instead the University of Massachusetts. He proved in his book that he got at least as good an education as he would have had at Princeton by taking advantage of many underutilized resources at his affordable state university.
Check the alma maters of our political and business leaders. There are far more state university grads than selective private school alumni among them. While watching the big games Thursday, remember that all that noise and vivid color is just decoration. High school students smart enough to see how much there is to learn in public universities should be happy they have so many chances, with less admissions stress and less expense, to assemble the makings of great lives.