Myths (and truths) about Good Universities

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Taken from LinkedIn article by Thomas R. Klassen, Professor, York University

All parents want their children to attend good schools, if not the best schools. When a child reaches university the pressure increases dramatically. Parents and students know that a university education is one of the few ways to ensure social mobility.

Selecting a good university, or even one of the best universities, is not simple. Part of the problem is determining which are the good schools.

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The key is to start with the young person and not the university.

There are national and international rankings produced by magazines and other organizations. These help a little but are general and broad. Like the rankings of best cars, best vacation spots, or best smartphones, the top-ranked and most exclusive schools may be out of reach. Being accepted at, and paying for, the University of Oxford (a top rated school) may not be possible.

The key to making the best decision is to start with the young person and not the university.

A child who is shy and reserved, may not do well in a large university where he may need to be proactive to join activities and flourish. A child unaccustomed to rural living may not blossom in a small university in an isolated community. A child close to high school friends and family, may not enjoy studying in a school far from her environment.

Understanding your child, and trusting him, will make the process of selecting the best school less stressful. Of course, that is easier said than done. You may know that a business degree results in higher lifetime earnings than a degree in art history. But, let the child pursue her love of history, at least at the undergraduate level.

Forcing her into a program or university not of her own choosing is a recipe for an unpleasant learning experience and lackluster academic performance. Poor grades in an undergraduate program close doors to future educational opportunities and employment possibilities. It is far better in the long run to have a strong transcript studying medieval art history, than a spotty transcript in an economics BA.

For undergraduate studies, the key is a happy child and engaged student.

Here is the bad news: for most students, the first year of studies is not very successful. Often students are in the wrong programs, or even in the wrong universities. Some students discover that university is not right for them at all, or at least not at the present time.

Some universities allow students – if they ask – to wipe clean the first year courses from a transcript. Such policies are not always well known to students.

The wisest counsel for parents of students entering post-secondary education is to prepare for their children for the transition. Be sure that young people know how to ask for assistance from university officials if encountering academic or social problems. Be certain that students know how to evaluate their progress and identify adjustments to their programs of study.

For young people just beginning their studies, rankings of universities are not very useful. Biology 101 is the same at all universities: the same textbooks are used; the same material is covered; the same tests are written. But what does vary from university to university is location, size of the institution, and type of student housing available.

Moreover, universities, are large and decentralized, resembling a collection of fiefdoms. Top ranked universities have within them programs and degrees that are mediocre, while lower ranked universities have programs within them that are highly regarded.

University rankings gain importance for those applying to graduate and professional programs. Here reputation and perceived quality matter as studying with high profile researchers is often essential for future career prospects. The masters and PhD programs courses for graduate programs are much more specialized than at the undergraduate level so it makes good sense to look at these – and what others say about them – in some detail before applying to an institution.

So, yes, do review university rankings even at the undergraduate level when considering the post-secondary education options for your child. But first review your child: who she is, what she wants and where she will flourish.