Does It Matter Where Your Kid Goes to College?

Relax.

That’s one message we might take away from Kevin Carey’s recent piece in the New York Times. He argues that the vast gulf between the “best” universities and the rest is nothing but an illusion. That certainly fits with my experience in the past twenty years as a graduate student and professor. But is it also true about the gulf between mainstream colleges and dissenting religious ones?

Carey insists, in a nutshell, that students will do just as well whether they go to Harvard or Podunk U. Or, to be more precise, Carey argues that the differences between elite schools and the rest are more about marketing than about actual educational impact.

...it doesn't!

…it doesn’t!

To back up his claims, Carey relies on the 2005 edition of a study by Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini. There are some differences between schools, of course. As Carey puts it,

But these findings are overwhelmed in both size and degree by the many instances in which researchers trying to detect differences between colleges found nothing.

“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

As the SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in work on my new book about conservative evangelical Protestant higher education. These schools exist because most people think it matters a great deal where kids go to college. Not only in terms of making connections and building a career, but in terms of learning good values and building a life as a certain sort of Christian.

As evangelist Bob Jones Sr. explained in 1928, he founded his college in order to help parents relax. “The fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution,” Jones promised,

can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teacher will steal the faith of their precious children. Your son and daughter can get in the Bob Jones College everything that they can get in any school of Liberal Arts.

These days, too, conservative religious leaders spend a good deal of time and effort helping parents find the right schools for their kids. As I argued a while back, creationist leader Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis offers lists of “safe” schools, schools that reliably teach young-earth creationism and ONLY young-earth creationism.

Can college make a difference?

Can college make a difference?

Kevin Carey’s recent look at the research prompts some important questions.

  • If the academic and professional difference between mainstream schools is not as great as we all think, is the difference between mainstream schools and religious schools also not as great as we think?
  • Might it be possible for conservative parents to relax about where their kids go to school, and instead focus on helping their kids make the most out of whatever school they DO attend?
  • Do religious students fare well at secular/pluralist schools?