Every year, America’s media outlets devote gallons of real and digital ink to parsing America’s “best colleges.” As application and acceptance deadlines near, countless stories, blog posts, and journal entries appear, following well-off students and documenting their fears about landing spots in their dream schools. The market for information about top colleges—who gets in, who is left out, what happens inside—seems bottomless.
Yet the truth is that students choosing among selective schools are making largely inconsequential decisions. Whether it’s a northeastern private college, a well-regarded midwestern public institution, or some other school rich with financial and reputational resources, any option will provide students with what really matters: overwhelmingly high odds of graduating from a well-recognized college. For them, even the dreaded “safety school” is likely still a better option than the best choice available to large numbers of students.
Less-fortunate students, by contrast, are often forced to choose among the many colleges that get lumped into broad lower tiers on best colleges lists, or from private for-profit colleges that are not even ranked at all. Many of these colleges are dropout factories, where students are unlikely to graduate and prices, debt levels, and student loan default rates are high. For these students, the crucial question is where not to go to college. When you’re wandering through a minefield with destructive options that lead to high loan debt and no degree, it’s worth having a map.
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