People tend to overthink this. The most profound difference lies between echelons, less so within the echelons themselves. The differences themselves can be boiled down to two factors that are meaningful drivers of future success.
#1) The School’s Reputation
Like it or not, fair or not… reputation matters. If and when there’s a cultural shift, and employers no longer make assumptions about a candidate when they see “Harvard” next to his/her name compared to a school they’ve never heard of, then we will happily update our take. Until then, however, if getting jobs matters to you, then the brand name factor is real. There are of course industries for which this isn’t necessarily true, or where the rules change; but generally, the pattern for brand names applies to the vast majority of college applicants aiming for Top 50 programs. Generally, the higher the school’s rank, the higher the brand equity.
#2) The Caliber of the School’s Student Body
Students are expected to develop during their college years (otherwise you should have considered spending your money in a different way). But the factors that people usually turn to, aren’t actually that meaningful. When visiting a school, for example, anxious parents will typically ask about faculty credentials, or they’ll weigh geographical factors like big city versus small city versus rural campus, or they’ll inquire about faculty-to-student ratio. The list is endless, but worthless. In fact, it comes down to one simple factor: the intellectual talent and diversity of the student body, period. How do you know which school “has” it? Surprise, surprise, this correlates with echelon class.
Reputation and caliber go hand-in-hand
And it makes perfect sense when you think about it. The more “selective” a school is, the more it attracts top talent, the greater the school’s ability to screen for talent. These cohorts tends to be successful, and that success by itself can refuel the cycle by attracting more applicants, improving the school’s ability to be choosey, etc. Think about it from the school’s perspective: their calculation is to assemble student bodies that will push each other, and help each other to succeed, because success helps the school attract more (and better) applicants. (Ultimately this leads to a bump in endowments and in reputation.) But so, reputation and caliber of student body go hand-in-hand. It’s hard to find a school that’s high on one and low on the other.
Here’s how to put this to practical use: if given the choice between an Echelon 2 school and an Echelon 4 school, in fact, there really shouldn’t be much of a choice beyond the simplest of calculations that 2 > 4 (rank-wise). Any algorithm that reveals that an Echelon 4 school is (on paper) preferable to an Echelon 2 school has a “coding error.” This is the part where a parent or student has overemphasized the importance of a factor like faculty-to-student ratio, and at the end of that analysis, you end up choosing Case Western over University of Chicago. Which school will impact future success more? The answer is almost always echelon level, regardless of perceived “fit.”
Once you’re choosing within an echelon, it is now appropriate to include other factors to help differentiate, again, keeping in mind that the differences between programs (within an echelon) are ultimately negligible. Once you’re choosing within an echelon, a student’s proclivity toward a smaller student body versus a massive one can help clarify a choice between School 1 and School 2. But never at the expense of either/both the school’s reputation (and therefore) the caliber of the average student.
Here’s a take on echelons (this will undoubtedly spark controversy). And it’s not set in stone, but we find an approach like this to be a more useful benchmarking tool than any other.
- Echelon 1 –Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, Stanford
- Echelon 2 –Columbia, Brown, University of Chicago, Dartmouth, UPenn, Cornell, Duke, CalTech, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern ||| Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Wellesley
- Echelon 3 –Vanderbilt, Washington University in St. Louis, Rice, UC Berkeley, Emory, Georgetown ||| Bowdoin, Middlebury, Pomona, Haverford, Vassar, Harvey Mudd, Smith, Wesleyan, Colgate, Colby
- Echelon 4 – Carnegie Mellon, UCLA, USC, UVA, Tufts, Wake Forest, UNC, University of Michigan, Boston College, NYU, William and Mary, Brandeis, Case Western, Georgia Tech, ||| Hamilton, Franklin & Marshall, Bucknell
This list is neither complete, nor comprehensive. But, as mentioned above, it’s useful as a benchmarking tool for an individual student, trying to make sense of the admissions landscape.
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