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Beyond “Prestige”: Why Finding the Best Fit Matters Most

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Landis Fryer College Admissions Advisor

Written by Landis Fryeron September 6th, 2022

My work in education started when I was an Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Dartmouth College, my alma mater. In addition to reading applications and making admissions decisions, I led our recruitment efforts for Black students and supervised the Senior Interviewer program. I moved back to my hometown, Chicago, and began working in the Undergraduate Admissions office at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. There, I also read applications, made admissions decisions, and led our recruitment efforts for Black students. I completed my MS in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania and my Ph.D. at Loyola University Chicago, where I studied, traveled, and taught in Tunisia, Cuba, South Korea, and China. My most recent position was working with students from China, helping both undergraduates and graduates succeed through the admissions process. Over the course of my career, I have helped students aged 6 to over 30 find their own path toward new educational opportunities.
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by Landis Fryer, former admissions officer at Dartmouth College If you are reading this blog, you most likely have heard from others or read an article or two about “prestigious” colleges and universities. Perhaps you have come across a “Best Colleges” list that ranked institutions using various methodologies. You may have some understanding or have heard about schools that make the news or are household names in many circles and wondered how that came to be. A good way to start is to understand “prestige” and how it came to overshadow more important factors for deciding where to apply and enroll. Defining Prestige According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, prestige means: “standing or estimation in the eyes of people (weight or credit in general opinion) and; commanding position in people's minds.” Prestige is conceptual and therefore fleeting; it is a label we can give and take away—something can be prestigious one day and obsolete the next. When applied to higher education, prestige connotes thoughts of success, fame, and seriousness. However, when digging into outlets that dictate “prestige” as it relates to colleges and universities, you will find that this label comes from other people: administrators, faculty, and alumni—it is not an intrinsic value of any school or institution. Outsiders often designate a school as prestigious only to perpetuate that label without giving it much substance. The idea of prestige pervades students’ school selection and adds unnecessary stress to families who vie for an elusive spot at one of these schools. Since people often pair prestige and selectivity, they assume the more selective a school is in admissions, the more prestigious it is. Thus, the cycle continues and prestige remains one of the most misappropriated adjectives to describe higher education institutions. It is interesting to note that rankings affect people’s ideas of a school’s prestige and therefore its value. A 2018 Stanford School of Education study concluded there is “scant evidence for the widespread belief that attending a ‘top tier’ college leads to success in school and in life.” In other words, going to a “prestigious university” does not necessarily mean better outcomes for students. They conclude that how well the school fits with the student’s goals and personality is much more important--and therefore meaningful--to successfully build their personal and professional outcomes. To summarize, prestige is not internal nor is it a signifier of “quality” – prestige is in the eye of the beholder, and it is used often frequently as a proxy for demonstrating worth and value. Prestige does not guarantee success, because every person makes decisions in college that will guide the direction their lives could take. Does Prestige Matter? The short answer is no, prestige does not matter based on outcomes. However, prestige might matter to you because it may confer “bragging rights” and give you something about which to be proud. This is not a bad thing; people recognize prestigious schools instantly, and might walk away impressed from knowing a student was admitted there. You may wonder, “If we do not use prestige, then what qualifications should we use to find the best schools?” At Bright Horizons College Coach, we champion the concept of “fit” as the primary category from which to select schools. What is fit and how do you find it? Fit is how closely the student’s goals and needs match the opportunities, support, and community of a university. You should use fit as the primary factor when selecting schools to apply to and at which to enroll. You determine fit by researching factors like class size, major, course selection, extracurricular activities, student life, internship opportunities, etc. You must decide how to prioritize these factors and find what schools fit you best. Many families, and maybe even yours, want great professional opportunities after college and assume prestige plays a role in recruitment and hiring. Networking opportunities and strong career services offices are available at almost every school. Costs and availability of scholarships and financing options could also be a factor for you--especially considering that many highly ranked schools only offer need-based financial aid. The article about the Stanford study notes how “studies show that the college [students] attend matters far less than the extent to which they engage in the undergraduate experience. Students who, for example, study hard, form strong relationships with professors, and participate in the college community tend to thrive during and after school whether they attended a ‘top-ranked’ institution or not.” The essence here is that while prestige might help identify (and elevate) schools in your mind, how the student fits within and uses the school’s opportunities matters most. To summarize, with over 5,300 higher education institutions in the United States, many will fit what you need and help you grow. Some of these schools you may discover in your search might not be as recognized as other schools. We encourage you to check them out—you will discover depth beyond prestige, and that depth will matter much more to your development and your future.

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