By Chris Teare
August 30, 2015
Excerpted from forbes.com
Parents go to great lengths to help their children make the best college choice; they often rely on rankings, even though they may not be the best way to choose. There is in fact a big difference between college rankings and ratings, as a proponent of the latter explained to me. If Edward “Ted” Fiske didn’t create the college guidebook genre 31 years ago, he may well have perfected it. The Fiske Guide to Colleges 2016 started off as The New York Times Selective Guide to Colleges when he was Education Editor of the Times. Because Ted has been looking at this landscape for decades, I asked him some questions. Along the way, he explained why ratings are better than rankings.
Q: Your headmaster urged you to attend a top Ivy League school, but you chose Wesleyan instead. Why did you do that, and which young people would you advise to do the same today?
A: I wanted a really good small liberal arts college in New England because I wanted to be able to do a wide range of things without sacrificing academics. I knew that if I went to a larger school, I would have to focus on one or two activities. As it turned out, I played varsity soccer and squash as well as rugby, edited the newspaper, sang in the glee club and joined a fraternity. Whether or not there were graduate students around never really occurred to me, but I do think there is wisdom in being at a place where what you are (i.e. an undergraduate) is the major focus. That’s certainly the case at liberal arts colleges.
Q: What do you make of the current emphasis on Return On Investment (ROI), especially as it relates to career-oriented majors at the undergraduate level by contrast to the liberal arts?
A: The best return on investment is an education that is going to prepare you for a career, not for the worst job you’ll ever have—which is to say your first job out of college. The best investment is in developing thinking and skills that are going to prepare you for jobs that you cannot even conceive of when you first go to work. Most people are not only going to change jobs but change careers. Preparing for a technical job that won’t continue to exist is not good return on investment. You need the skills to adapt to different situations. I remember conversations comparing liberal arts and technical education with CEOs of major corporations. They want liberal arts graduates with broad general educations, whom they will later train. They will also admit, however, that they sometimes have trouble getting this message through to their people who do their hiring, which they find frustrating.
One young liberal arts graduate I know went for an interview at a top financial services firm, where the interviewer asked why he should be hired when he had no specific financial services training. He responded that he’d looked at the biographies of the senior managers of the firm, seen that everyone at that level had a liberal arts education, and said that if it was good enough for them, he believed it would be good enough for him. He was hired and has done well.
Chris Teare writes about education, most often about the college admissions process. Read his full interview with Ted Fiske, as it was originally published on forbes.com right here.