Real-World College Ratings

The Wall Street Journal

By Ralph Gardner Jr.
November 7, 2013

I’m loath to enter the national debate––about anything––this being a studiously apolitical space, a refuge from the passions of the day. However, as a proud liberal arts major, I can no longer sit back and remain silent in the face of the Obama administration’s recent rollout.

I’m not talking about the Affordable Care Act, but about a proposed government college-rating system, a school’s standing based on factors such as graduates’ earnings. Personally, I find such a system offensive. I could argue the obvious: The benefits of knowing Shakespeare backward and forward, or of being able to wow friends and family by identifying the sculptor of a particular fountain while eating gelato in Rome, are intangible. They can’t be reduced to dollars and cents.

But I’m not going to go that route. Or even point out that while an education steeped in STEM––science, technology, engineering and math––might help you land a high-paying job as a petroleum engineer straight out of college, not all of us want to be petroleum engineers.

I also won’t argue that there’s anything wrong with earning $15,000 a year and living at home until your 40s––as long as your parents are OK with that. Rather, I’d like to propose an alternate rating system, one based on hard-nosed reality in an increasingly competitive world. But first, I decided to call Kat Cohen for suggestions on scorecard categories.

Ms. Cohen runs Ivywise, an educational admissions company; and it’s not just for college and graduate school, but all the way down to pre-K. She’s also a frequent guest on the “Today” show.

I first met her in 2001, when I was writing a story for New York magazine about parents pushing back against the SATs. Unfortunately, I could find only one such person––a brave friend who stood up during a college reunion and announced that if getting his kid into our alma mater depended on hiring wall-to-wall tutors, he’d just as well go elsewhere.

Bravo, I thought, sensing a trend. I was wrong. It turned out parents were as cutthroat as ever about getting their kids into the Ivies and a handful of other schools. And they were hiring people like Ms. Cohen to help them make it happen. The resulting story, “The $28,995 Tutor,” referred to the price of Ivywise’s “Platinum Package”––24 sessions spread across junior and senior year of high school, and an hour of phone time a week.

When I contacted Ms. Cohen this week, she sounded busier than ever, alluding to her team of tutors and former college admissions officers. However, she reported that the Platinum Package had gone the way of Napster and Vanilla Ice. “We have completely changed our programs,” she told me, noting Ivywise’s pro bono clients. “We have all different price points.”

I was curious whether things were as crazy as they were at the turn of the millennium, suspecting I already knew the answer. “At the most selective schools, the admission rates have gone down,” Ms. Cohen explained. “That does put parents in a panic.”

In typical, maddening college counselor mode, Ms. Cohen refused to play the ratings game when I threw out categories in my incipient college-ranking system. For example: “Which colleges, in descending order, will make your peers gasp with envy at cocktail parties when you announce your kid goes to school there?”

She insisted, the way all self-respecting college guidance professionals do, that it’s about the fit; there are probably a dozen colleges where your child would be happy. Unfortunately, happiness wasn’t my question.

Ms. Cohen directed me toward a survey she likes, the National Survey of Student Engagement. “They ask questions like, ‘Are you working with faculty members on activities other than course work?’ and ‘Are you discussing class reading outside of classes,'” she explained.

That all sounds interesting. But when I visited the NSSE’s website, I couldn’t find the colleges that participated in the annual survey ranked from first to last. And as Ms. Cohen knows as well as anyone, there’s a deep, abiding human need to know where we stand, whether we’re superior or inferior to the next guy.

So here are some of the categories for my new ratings system. Feel free to suggest your own. We’re still in the beta testing phase:

  • “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much have your social skills, not to mention your clothes sense, improved since Freshman Week?” There’s entirely too much focus on academics at college. You can catch up on your reading when you’re old and can’t get out of bed. The real education comes in learning to spread your wings, without giving anyone else a concussion in the process. That’s why we’re all in trouble if online universities take off. We’ll be giving rise to a race of misfits who refuse to make eye contact. The most underrated aspect of college is making friends, learning to socialize and developing the head of steam essential to launching yourself in the world.
  • “Are your roommate’s parents billionaires, and if not, how easy is it to switch roommates?” I’m throwing out this question for discussion. It well might not make it into final survey. I actually believe the importance of college professional networks in getting ahead is overrated. They might help you get your foot in the door, but you’re on your own after that. Incompetence, as I can attest from personal experience, is hard to disguise. On the other hand, it’s fun to head for your best friend’s private island on spring break when everyone else is slumming it at Atlantis.

I can’t think of any other questions. But if you find satisfactory answers to the first two, you ought to be set into your 50s.