Second Tier Colleges

Shedding Tiers:  The Dean Says, “Why Use U.S. News Rankings When You Can Make Your Own?”

The second-tier college scoop. I may not be a real dean, but I play one on College Confidential. I write the “Ask the Dean” column for CC, and I do often call upon bona fide admissions directors when I need an official scoop. But, at this time of year, my inbox is full of queries that would make most genuine deans cringe. As soon as the U.S. News and World Report college rankings hit the streets, I’m flooded with mail from students and parents angsting over incremental moves up and down the rankings roster.  Weeks ago, for instance, I assured one nervous dad that Smith would be a “Realistic” choice for his daughter. But then he spotted the school climb from #19 to #17 in the most recent ratings. “Is it a ‘Reach’ for her now?” he worried.

And so it was almost refreshing when this question came in, and I learned that not everyone is in the loop of the rankings lasso:

Question:  My son has found several colleges he likes that also seem like good “fits” for him. But others (friends, family, even a teacher) have told him that he shouldn’t settle for a “second-tier” school. What are they talking about, and are they right? Please explain!


Maria M.

Dear Maria,

When I was going through my Wonder Years, many eons ago, there was a vague but widely accepted understanding that some colleges were “better” than others. Although the finer points of the pecking order were up for debate, most folks seemed to agree that Princeton trumped Pepperdine, that Amherst bested Albion, etc. Yet when it came to deciding where to actually apply, my recollection is that most of us selected our schools without obsessively scrutinizing the imaginary scale.

But in 1983 U.S.News and World Report published its first edition of  the now-annual college rankings, where hair-splitting differences can mean that one school may fall within the coveted “top tier” while a seemingly similar one is doomed to the second . or third or fourth. Thus, when naysayers speak of the “second-tier” colleges on your son’s list, they are referring to the U.S. News designations, which many seem to take as gospel truth.

Originally, U.S. News divided national universities and liberal arts colleges into four separate tiers, with the first 50 or so ranked numerically and the remaining schools grouped into three additional tiers and listed alphabetically. In the current rankings, however, the numerical list extends past 100 before Tier 3 begins. The second tier seems to have vanished entirely, although in popular parlance, “first tier” is reserved for only the top 50 schools. Any college ranked below 50 but above Tier 3 is commonly called “second tier,” even though you won’t find it so labeled in the magazine any longer.

One would think that the evaporation of the “second tier” would send a message that proclaims, “There simply aren’t clear lines of demarcation that distinguish among schools.” Yet, today, when making college choices, families often seem more focused on where an institution lands on the U.S. News totem pole than on the breadth of the biology or business offerings, the size of the student body, the campus political climate, or on the many other factors that make for wise student-school pairings.

A range of variables (from SAT scores to alumni giving rate) factor into the tier assignments, but the whole thing smacks suspiciously of the “slam books” I remember from junior high school. Back then, in 1963, my closest girlfriends and I systematically rated the more popular boys in our 7th-grade class, using criteria such as “personality,” “athleticism,” and, of course, “appearance.”  I’m sure that the selection process was slanted so that all of our current crushes ended up in the top ten. Categories that might have excluded some of our beaux (e.g., “academic ability” or “inches above five feet”) were omitted from the equation.

In other words, we knew before we started that Scott Wellenbach, Adam Keller, Tommy Harris, David Stokes, and Bill Weiss would rise to the high end of the roster, and sure enough, they did. Likewise, I don’t think that anyone at U.S. News was shocked to see Princeton, Harvard, and Yale topping their charts.  But if statistics like “SATs” were replaced with others like “student satisfaction” or “faculty availability,” one might see a broader range of contenders for the first-tier slots.

Not everyone, however, orders only from the U.S. News menu. For starters, some students know that they don’t have a prayer at Dartmouth or Duke nor even at top-tier brethren Kenyon or Colby, so they aim for more realistic options right away. All too occasionally, others-even the most able applicants-manage to filter out publicity and peer pressure and, instead, think carefully about where they’ll be the happiest and most engaged. (Ironically, the sort of strength of character that should make a student an attractive candidate for the Ivies and their ilk can also come in very handy when a high schooler attempts to stray from the fold and pick a second tier college).

Despite the never-ending parade of publications that attempt to offer inside tracks to elite-college admission, there is also a burgeoning array of books that encourage looking beyond the Ivy League (one, in fact, is called just that). They emphasize the importance of matching student and school and of identifying specific college strengths (besides providing kudos for proud parents at cocktail parties).

If you’re interested in such books–either to find more colleges to consider for your son or to confirm the worth of those already on his list–then check out these titles:

-Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges by Loren Pope

This is the granddaddy of think-outside-the-box guides. Pope details the many pluses of attending liberal arts institutions that offer small classes, accessible profs, research opportunities, etc. to a broad swath of students, including those who didn’t earn straight-A’s in high school. Also by Pope is Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Find the College That’s Right for You. While Pope’s anti-Ivy stance can seem at times as if he doth protest too much, there is a lot of useful information here about the lesser-known schools.

-Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That is Best for Youby Jay Matthews. My “News Clips to Save” folder is brimming with columns by this witty and insightful Washington Post writer, who earned his undergraduate degree at Occidental College.  The title says it all.

-Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different by David Asher. The advice in this book and the colleges profiled are surely not just for academic also-rans. Even if you’ve never heard of Deep Springs or Harvey Mudd, their admitted-student GPA’s and SAT’s rival those of the Ivies.

You may find some of your son’s second-tier selections touted in these books. Also, if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll find that even the Ivy-maniacal media will sometimes plug less celebrated institutions. Major publications such as USA Today have included round-ups of the top corporate tycoons and their alma maters. You’ll spot Oklahoma State, The University of Akron, and Whittier College on such lists along with Stanford, Dartmouth, and Cornell.

When you research the so-called “second tier,” you may also stumble on references to a much-cited study authored by Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger that compared two decades of earnings of Ivy League graduates with those who were admitted to Ivy or Ivy-comparable colleges but chose to matriculate elsewhere. The Dale and Krueger findings suggested that there was no glaring difference.

Personally, I avoid using the word “tier” in a college context, but I admit I don’t abhor the U.S. News rankings entirely. I like to peruse them with about the same degree of amusement that I get from watching one of those E! Channel specials like “Wildest Cop Show Moments” or “Top 20 Hip Hop Cash Kings” while I’m folding my laundry. I figure it can never hurt to know what’s out there and what other people think is important.

I confess, too, that I’ve been known to use the rankings for my own selfish purposes. When I’m trying to push outstanding but unheralded schools like Carleton or Haverford, it’s handy to whip out the ol’ U.S. News list and show off their single-digit ranks.

But I’d prefer to see the rankings as just one of many measures that go into the college search, and not as the tail that wags the dog. Take from the U.S. News data what you most value (class size? retention rate?) and skip the rest, especially that number next to the college name or the tier designation above it. Urge your son to make his own list of important criteria: an engineering program? a creative writing major? a radio station? a wrestling team? Those schools that meet them all should be his first-tier colleges. The ones that come close are in the second.

Then, the next time he’s berated for making second tier choices, he can look his accusers squarely in the eye and correct them. “No,” he can say, “those are my top-tier picks. Second-tier schools are the ones that don’t rank so high for me.”