UCAS keep calm -EducationFor Uni-Bound Students and Parents

The university application period is one of the most stressful times, not just for the applicant but also for the whole family—parents in particular. We hear about how much higher education has changed and how exponentially selective and expensive universities are today. Such a media heap of anxiety can send parents into overdrive in search of the university that has the best return on investment.

Higher education ranking is often the first metric parents use to frame the university panorama. We might start off globally, checking out QS, Shanghai or Times Higher Education. Or, we might keep to a single system and peruse the Complete University Guide for UK unis or US News and World Report for American ones. We confirm that yes, Oxford and Cambridge are still high up on the lists and so are the big tech universities like MIT, CalTech and Stanford but also the old Ivies like Harvard and Princeton.

Digging deeper, parents of students concentrating their efforts in the UK might look at course and subject rankings of Russell Group unis like Imperial College for our STEM quants or London School of Economics for applied social scientists. Parents of the aspiring business-minded might take a further look at graduate Finance degrees or MBAs. And if we have gone this far we might as well look at institutions that turn out highest income-earners. Here is WealthInSight and SPEAR’s top 10 degrees and unis that turn out the millionaires.

A few of us might start shaking our heads about here and wonder if these rankings are really the facts we thought they were. It might have to do with the University of California coming up in 3rd place when it is actually made up of 10 different universities ranging from UC Berkeley to UC Merced or perhaps because it turns out that so far what we have found is more confirmation of what we already knew.

Indeed, the first higher education ranking list was published by US News and World Report in 1983 as a consumer guide based on feedback and reputation. Not a lot has changed since then. Today, ranking lists are compiled surprisingly similarly, with biases towards reputation (top universities have formal internal systems to boost their ranking), the ranking supplier’s region, English-speaking universities, STEM subjects and perhaps most importantly for undergraduate students, the weight research is assigned over teaching. Even rankings that claim to use teaching as a criterium give research 60% of the total value. The result of any ranking list is then not a performance-based ranking metric like a sports competition with point-based scores but more a consumer report evaluated by the university elite.

For a more personally-tuned undergraduate list then, it may be more interesting to explore the range of unis that may not have the funds to bump them up the rankings but have programs with strong teaching, links to industry, and provide a place for students to begin expanding their social and professional networks.

So the final word for uni-bound students and their parents?

Keep calm and remember that the choice of uni is not an end-all decision. The reality today is that more than half the graduates end up working in fields outside their original major or course choice—and this, in part because career paths that did not exist before are constantly developing. There will be many more opportunities to come.