Smartest students comparison shop

The Free Press, August 28th, 2010

Once upon a time, a remark like, “Oh, that’s a fine school” had a certain meaning—a university that was well known, ivy-covered and probably expensive.

That's not the case so much anymore, as competition increased for students trying to get into colleges, colleges trying to attract the best students and employers trying to get the best college graduates. Smart shopping is essential.

A degree from University X may or may not mean what you think. How much exposure an undergrad receives to knowledge outside of their major depends on the universities’ requirements.

That’s where rankings help the prospective students and their families. That is, as long as the shopper is aware the comparison is apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

U.S. News & World Report’s rankings are generally acknowledged as a solid barometer and are the most closely watched. But it is not immune to critics of the pressure it puts on colleges to boost their scores at the expense of improved teaching.

We also found interest in the nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) report on whatwilltheylearn.com. Here, colleges and universities grade in seven areas—composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. history, economics, mathematics and science—of their core curriculum, a measure of the exposure students receive.

There’s nothing wrong with Harvard, but if you want the better well-rounded experience, you’d choose Lamar. That’s in Texas, and that’s according to ACTA’s grading system. ACTA freely admits its system doesn’t tell the whole story; it just offers a link that is often missing.

N.C. State was the only one of 19 institutions graded in the state to earn a passing mark in five of the seven categories on whatwilltheylearn.com. Nine others (ECU, Duke and UNC among them) earned good marks in four categories. That’s a “B” for all 10 if you’re scoring at home.

Three schools (Appalachian State, Wake Forest and Western Carolina) earned good marks in only two. That’s a “D,” same as Harvard.

The U.S. News report ranks universities in several major categories nationally.

Several in North Carolina scored well. UNC ranked fifth nationally among public universities for the 10th straight year. NCSU was 52nd. Duke tied for ninth among national universities offering doctoral degrees.

Elon was second among Southern regional universities while Appalachian checked in at No. 9.

N.C. Central was 11th among historically black institutions, a spot above N.C. A&T.

Various categories also included UNC Wilmington, High Point and Campbell.

Our state, like many others across the nation, is blessed with fine institutions of higher learning. Some are specific to certain areas of knowledge, while others will give the graduate broader knowledge.

It’s a big investment for the future. If you know what you’re shopping for, you can know where to find it.

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