Let’s get something out of the way first. Colleges and universities that are generally nationally recognized are graduating successful students. Their students obviously are getting jobs and being accepted into graduate school.
Of course, there is the chicken and the egg issue. Do the schools produce good students or are the schools good because they accept good students? On one level, who cares if it is because of the quality of the program or the quality of the students–it’s the end result that matters, right?
But for those who want to drop out of the prestige race, the question is are these schools the ONLY way to achieve the same results?
Now, figuring out the deciding factor in producing successful students, good schools or good students, seems a bit more important.
In general, I find that it’s wasted effort trying to convince people who buy into the need for prestige and reputation that students are not ruining their lives by attending colleges no one has ever heard of.
But I do think there is plenty of evidence to offer families who are looking for some reassurance for their decision to go the road less traveled. A lot of what follows I have discussed before so I’m just trying to put it all in one place. These are a few resources that I think should provide some evidence that people do find success graduating from colleges no one has ever heard of.
In The Truth About Rejection by Elite Colleges, I show that there’s increasing evidence that the phrase repeated by college counselors everywhere, it doesn’t matter where you go to college but what you do there, is true.
Research by Krueger and Dale shows that students who were actually accepted to the most elite colleges and went elsewhere were just as successful as those who did attend the “must get in” schools.
In fact, the most recent research shows that “the average SAT score at the most selective college students apply to turns out to be a better predictor of their earnings than the average SAT score at the college they attended.”
As for people not knowing about your school, which people are we talking about? People get nervous when friends, co-workers, and family members look at them blankly and say they never heard of the school. However, unless one of them is the director of the human resources department for a fortune five hundred company, they really aren’t the people you need to worry about.
Think going to colleges no one has ever hear of (or are at least easily overlooked) will hurt your chances for graduate school? Take a look at the “Baccalaureate Origins of S&E Doctorate Recipients.” All of the big-name schools are there but the top 50 list also includes schools that would qualify as colleges no one has ever heard of (or at least would be generally ignored) such as Kalamazoo College, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Hendrix College, and Lawrence University.
You can download a list of institutions with Rhodes Scholars at The Rhodes Trust. Be sure to pay attention to the warnings about using the statistics. Also, keep in mind some institutions have a much stronger process in place to assist students in applying for such scholarships. Yes, you’ll find some of the most competitive colleges in the country at the top of the list. However, Sewanee: The University of the South actually had the same number of Rhodes scholars as Georgetown. The University of Mississippi, University Kansas, and University of Montana all have the same number of scholars as Vanderbilt University and more than the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins.
Another website to visit is the Fulbright Student Awards and look up which schools have received awards by year. In 2022-23, The University of Alabama had the same number of students winning Fulbrights as Tulane and Washington University in St. Louis. The University of Iowa had more than MIT, Emory, and Dartmouth.
The Washington University Medical School use to have a table showing the undergraduate institutions represented by their incoming class. I did a post just on this table in Do College Rankings Matter? Examining the table (at the time) showed that:
During this time period, ten students from the University of Illinois Chicago, ranked 150, enrolled in the Medical School which is just one less than the number of students that enrolled from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ranked 29.
Unfortunately, they no longer list colleges that send less than three students a year for multiple years which would keep smaller and lesser-known schools off of the list (talk about protecting your brand.) However, even with the bias, University of Nebraska – Lincoln, Oregon State University, University of Arkansas, and Truman State University show up on the most recent list.
Take a look at the undergraduate schools of the law classes admitted to Harvard. The list may be dominated by top ranked schools but you’ll see a few colleges you’ve never heard of or at least are unexpected. In 2022-23 the schools included Austin College, Auburn University, Arizona State University, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, Cal State-Long Beach, Clark Atlanta University, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Georgia State University, Humboldt State University, University of Hawaii, Manoa, Jackson State University, Mississippi State University, Point Loma Nazarene University, University of Nevada-Reno, University of Texas at Dallas, University of Wyoming, and the Westmont College.
I used to include the University of Virginia Law School’s undergraduate profile but it seems to have caught the same disease as Washington University in St. Louis and is now only listing schools with at least 4 students in the first-year class. Given the increasing number of schools that don’t list the undergraduate origins of their class, I think people should start asking for the lists. Why are they worried about potentially listing colleges no one has ever heard of?
Perhaps a more interesting exercise is to search for medical school class profiles (not those showing up at the top of the rankings) and see where the students came from. After looking through a few schools, you’ll see students from Brown, Carleton, Cornell, Vanderbilt, and Washington University in St. Louis attending the University of Toledo Medical School along with students from Lebanon Valley College, Oregon State University, University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the University of Northern Colorado. The University of Louisville Medical School’s recent entering class includes students from Notre Dame, Princeton, UCLA, Vanderbilt, and Yale as well as Bethel University, University of Mount Olive, Austin Peay State University, and Carson-Newman University.
As I stated in the beginning, this isn’t about proving that prestige doesn’t matter. Rather, it’s meant to show that it’s not necessary depending on the student. It may be a risk to stop chasing prestige but then again, chasing prestige doesn’t provide any guarantees either.
Check out the 50-50College Listing to start searching for a college no one has ever heard of but might be a great opportunity for you.
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