Becker was a counselor for 18 years at Conestoga High in Berwyn, Penn., an affluent, high-performing public school full of selective-college angst. On his website, he describes the emotional trauma he witnessed when his students were turned down. He explains why he has worked so hard to prove that their grief is based on false premises.
“The range of college selectivity — from those that admit five percent of their applicants to those that have open admission — is a continuum with significant overlap, not a pyramid with discrete steps,” he says in his introduction. “Thus, the distance between the most selective colleges and those that are a bit less selective is significantly smaller than most people believe.”
He has gone deep into the databases of colleges and school rating organizations and come up with several surprises. For instance, he ranked colleges by the number — not the percentage — of students with SAT math scores over 700 or ACT math scores over 30. Those students are all in the top 5 percent of test-takers. Here are the top 10 schools on that list in descending order: Ohio State, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UT-Austin, Michigan, Illinois, University of Washington, Wisconsin, Texas A&M and Maryland (Becker’s alma mater). Ohio State had 20,500 students with those scores. Maryland had 12,600.
The numbers mean that several very big schools vibrate with a sense of high achievement not unlike what you get in famous private universities older than our country. Many people would have done well in the ultra-selective colleges that turned them down. The Ivies don’t have room for most of the people who meet their qualifications. Thousands of the applicants they reject are just as strong as the ones they accept.
“So if your very bright, hard-working son or daughter has to ‘settle for’ Boston University because they were turned down by Harvard and MIT,” Becker says, “point out to them that they’ll have more top-5 percent math students at B.U. than at the other two universities combined. . . . The notion that attending a slightly less selective school means going to college somewhere that there won’t be lots of other students who match up well with you intellectually is simply not true.”
That’s just one of Becker’s revelations. For purposes of analysis, he has created three groups of respectable schools with different selectivity rates. The first group, all admitting less than 10 percent of applicants in 2019, is Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Northwestern, Penn, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, Swarthmore and Yale. The second group, admitting 10 to 29 percent, is Boston University, Carnegie Mellon, Colgate, Emory, Middlebury, Tufts, Villanova, University of Richmond, Vassar and Wesleyan. The third group, admitting 30 to 49 percent, is Baylor, Bucknell, Fordham, Kenyon, Lafayette, Lehigh, Pepperdine, Santa Clara, Southern Methodist and Worcester Polytechnic.
Then he compares them in clever ways. He took the U.S. News & World Report numbers on the percentage of first-year students who returned for sophomore year in 2019 and found the three groups very close to each other: Group one was 98 percent; group two, 95 percent; and group three, 92 percent.
How about class sizes? College brochures often brag about small classes where students go deep. Becker found these differences among his three groups on the percentage of classes with fewer than 20 students: Group one was 71 percent; group two, 65 percent; and group three, 58 percent.
He stood that issue on its head and looked at what percentage of classes had more than 50 students. Big lecture courses are sometimes vilified as mindless mass production. The U.S. News data revealed that the top group did worse on this, 8 percent, than groups two and three, each 5 percent.
Becker applied his three-group analysis to the Princeton Review’s quality-of-life numbers. That publication asks students to rate on a 60-to-99-point scale their campus’s dorm comfort, food quality and other features designed to keep residents happy. Group one and group two each had a 90-point average. Group three was just below, with an 88-point average.
There’s more to ponder at lesshighschoolstress.com. My favorite among Becker’s many lists has a shocking conclusion. He looked at a 2012 study by the Chronicle of Higher Education on employers’ priorities when choosing applicants just out of college.
The hiring officials were asked to rank eight factors in their decisions. On average they gave the most importance to the nature of student internships. That was followed in descending order by what jobs applicants had in college, their college majors, volunteer experiences, extracurricular activities, relevance of coursework and grade-point averages.
What happened to college reputation, the factor that leads so many students to apply to the most selective schools? It was on average at the very bottom of the hiring executives’ priority lists.
Becker discusses some of the unappreciated truths that I have focused on, such as the large number of corporate chief executive officers who did not attend Ivy-like schools and the dearth of ultra-selective college grads in competitive jobs. I looked at U.S. senators and TV news anchors. Becker examined astronauts, brain specialists and many other big job categories.
He also gives great weight, as he should, to a landmark study by Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger showing that students who were admitted to very selective colleges but attended less selective ones were making just as much money 20 years later as the super-selective college grads. Dale and Krueger concluded that character traits the students acquired long before college, such as persistence, humor and warmth, led to their success, not the college name on their diploma.
“Chronic college admissions stress is not inevitable,” Becker says, “and you can eradicate most of it.”
My favorite stress-reducing technique is to remember that if you want something you discover your college doesn’t have, you can transfer to another one. Barack Obama, Donald Trump and I did that.
But Becker is a more imaginative and energetic guide to a mentally healthy college search than most people who take on that assignment. If you have had some bad days lately, give him a try.