The Benefits of a Less Selective College


It’s only natural that many talented students aim for the most selective school that they can gain into. It’s not always a smart idea, however, for applicants to attend the most selective college or university that admits them.

Today I am sharing the observations on this topic from Scott White, the head guidance counselor at Morris High School in New Jersey, the author of a free book on the college admission process, who enjoys a national reputation in the higher-ed world. I liked his post so much that I asked to run it on my college blog.

By Scott White

I went to Swarthmore College (as did my daughter) and it was the right choice for me, except in one major area.

I had a really weak high school chemistry course and was considering pre-med. The chemistry course, as it is in many similar schools, was largely a vehicle to self-select out pre-med students. It started on page 150 of the text book, with the professor saying all of you had this first 150 pages in high school (mine got to page 25). We couldn’t have lab partners and our labs were graded by upper class international students, who were brutal.

I ended up with a W on my transcript when I realized I could never catch up. If I was truly

Swarthmore College

Swarthmore College

committed to becoming a doctor, going to a less selective college would have served me better.

My son had much stronger credentials than I did, but knew that he was eligible for a Presidential Scholarship (spelled F-R-E-E) at Rutgers University and would, on each college visit to say Brown or Georgetown, observe that they were lovely places but not lovely enough to balance off going to college for free (I love that kid!).

He is a senior in college now and is constantly being sought out for awards, honors, programs and fellowships, something that would be unlikely if he had gone to a most competitive college.

So here is my top ten list of why students should not always go to the most selective college that will admit you:

1. Merit Money

Lynn O’Shaughnessy at The College Solution discusses how colleges will provide merit money for kids who are strong students for the school, which is generally not a student’s reach school. Even without merit money, as one moves up the selectivity ladder there are higher costs and higher debt.

2. Meeting Professional Goals

In some highly competitive fields, like pre-med, it is often best to go to a school whose need is to make sure that every student who wants to go to med school gets in as opposed to selecting out students before they apply. The experience of being supported rather than being weeded out can change the course of your life.

3. Personal Attention

There is often a greater opportunity to work with professors and develop close mentoring relationships with teachers when you a a big fish in a small pond. It is often easier to get more highly supportive teacher recommendations as well.

4. Scholarships and Fellowships.

Students who are more distinguished in their school will be regularly sought out for awards, honors, fellowships and scholarships.

5. Quality Faculty.

It is really hard to get a college teaching job and you can get outstanding teachers at virtually any college. You are more likely to get teachers who are as focused in teaching undergraduates as they are in their own research at strictly undergraduate schools. You are also are not taught by graduate assistants at strictly undergraduate colleges.

6. Graduate School.

It is much easier to shine coming from a less selective pool of students. Of two identical applicants applying from an extremely selective college and from one considerably less selective, the latter will have the advantage in admissions. This person is likely to have greater faculty support, more leadership opportunities and better grades.

7. Licensing.

Many of the extremely selective schools do not have opportunities to get professional licenses as an undergraduate.

8. Employment.

After your first job, rarely do employers care where you went to undergraduate school. And if you go to graduate school, it is this imprimatur that matters more than undergraduate school. It is also well documented that higher pay is more related to college major than the selectivity of the undergraduate school (see John Boeckenstedt’s High Ed Data Stories blog for a thorough analysis of this).

9. The Community College Option.

This is a very inexpensive way to getting through the first two years of college.

Your diploma from a 4-year college does not say “community college transfer” and two years of successful community college will often open more doors than many students would have have leaving high school.

This is a much better option than enrolling in a 4-year college with the plan of transferring.

10. Graduation:

The number of students who end up not graduating yet accumulating huge debt is staggering. Students need to be honest with themselves as to what they are prepared for emotionally, psychologically and financially. For many students, not straying far from the nest, particularly right out of high school, is more likely to guarantee future success.

Learn More

I’ve opened up registration for my latest course – The College Cost Lab – that will explain how parents can aaa collegecut the cost of college.

Enroll early and you’ll get my new guide, The Ultimate List of the Nation’s Most Generous Colleges. – Lynn O’Shaughnessy


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  1. I’m so glad I found this site. This applies so acutely to pre-med candidates who often find it hard to consider a less than top tier undergrad degree, where the weeder classes make mice out of men.

    Plus, community college, despite its glamor-less pedigree can get you to a higher level (college-wise with less debt) than you can often get on your own.

    The only thing I do disagree with is that if you end your college years after a bachelor’s, companies won’t consider your undergrad institution after the first job. I think that’s wishful thinking. Sure, some companies won’t care and as you work your way up, there is less focus on it. But elite schools continue to open doors no matter what level you’re at. It’s called the snob appeal (the hidden class system) that is alive and kicking in America.

  2. I think in fairness we should list the three major reasons for attending an ivy league school:
    1) you have political ambitions without having the actual talent – and require the imprimatur of a selective college.
    2) since you are quite likely to run into rich people there, you have some chance of securing a rich spouse or benefactor. Be aware that you are also likely to suffer social ostracism – so its a gamble.
    3) you are rich yourself, and have some pleasure in ostracizing people and exploiting the occasional gold digger.

  3. I thought I’d never see this article. I also had no competition in high school chemistry and I actually dropped chem at the University but retook it the next semester and completed three years of undergrad and one of graduate chemistry. I entered college behind the other students and I agree going to the most competitive school can have big drawbacks. Thanks for this great article.

  4. If memory serves, that pic shows the south wing of the “Rat Factory,” er, The Refectory, aka, the dining hall. A grand building that always added a touch of class to an overcooked Southern meal. There’s a better selection of vittles now, I’m sure.

  5. I agree completely, Lynn, but here’s an important supporting reference you may not know.

    Malcolm Gladwell, the bestselling pop economist & explainer, agrees with you. And he’s run the numbers, from other’s research. His book “David and Goliath” expends ten pages explaining it, with studies comparing post-graduate outcomes by class rank and the school’s prestige. The study compared the tippy-top-ranked Ivy League colleges vs. lesser-ranked but still-selective ones. At both levels, it was the top 20% who got published, and the bottom half of a Harvard’s class fared no better than the bottom half of a class from Boston U. or U. of Toronto, among others. Regarding STEM degrees, Gladwell reports, “… choosing a great school over a good school lowered chances of graduating with a science degree by 30 percent.” KIds lost confidence and interest when they suddenly found themselves in the back of the pack, and drifted off to less ambitious degree programs.

    Gladwell notes, “The very thing that makes elite schools such wonderful places for those at the top makes them very difficult places for everyone else.” Your column today makes a concise list of those likely reasons.

    A personal note– Lynn, I thank you for your advice. I read a dozen college books over the past two years, and yours impressed me even before I realized you put my alma mater on the cover. I just gave my well-annoted copy to my last college-bound niece. In two weeks I’ll drive my only daughter up to the University of Puget Sound, one of those little life-changing colleges that offer a supportive, intimate and immersive college experience, plus plenty of face-to-face learning. Thank you for reminding me of what I knew all along!

      1. Fabulous post! Completely rational theory, encased in a humorous, self-deprecating presentation. Thanks for calling it to our attention.

    1. Thanks John! I love Gladwell’s book. I think it should be required reading for families who believe there are only two or three dozen schools worth attending!

      Thank you for your kind words! I wish your daughter all the best at Puget Sound.

      And for those who are wondering what school is on the cover of my book (The College Solution) it’s Rhodes College in Memphis. I really had to fight for this photo since the publisher wanted to use a stock photo. I really, really protested and Rhodes was happy to let me use this photo.

      Lynn O.