CENTER ::COLLEGE CENTER :: NEWS
Want to Go
To Harvard Law?
Comprehensive Ranking of America's Most Successful 'Feeder' Colleges
When it came
time for Porter Leslie to pick a college, Washington University
looked pretty tempting -- after all, a scholarship there would save
his family $13,000 a year. But with plans for a top graduate program
after college, his parents decided to pick up the tab for Columbia.
"That's one reason we're paying all this money," says
his mother, Sally Leslie. "He should go to the best college
he can so he can go to the best grad school."
But is that
assumption correct? For years the focus in higher education has
been about getting into the best possible college. Yet when it comes
to professionals -- the future doctors, lawyers and executives out
there -- it's all about the right grad school. So with families
all across the country getting ready for this year's college admissions,
we decided to look at which schools are most successful at getting
kids into the nation's most prestigious graduate programs.
To compile our
list of the most effective feeder colleges, we researched the background
of more than 5,000 students starting at more than a dozen top business,
law and medical schools this fall, including names like Harvard
Law and the Wharton MBA. Our survey canvassed grad-school admissions
offices, spoke to officials at more than 50 colleges and in some
cases counted up kids one by one in student "face book"
directories. Then we put it all together, factoring in the class
size at each of the undergraduate colleges so that small schools
wouldn't be penalized.
To no one's
surprise, Harvard, Yale and Princeton easily dominated the top of
our list. But after that, we found things don't always stack up
the way you might think. Four of the other Ivy League schools failed
to crack our top 10 (sorry, Penn). State schools like Michigan and
Berkeley came in further down the list, and so did NYU (No. 69),
which trailed Kalamazoo College (No. 57). And if you're looking
for a college with a track record better than UCLA or Barnard, look
in Minnesota -- St. Paul, to be exact, home to Macalester.
Colleges see an opening here. Indeed, our survey showed many smaller
schools catching on to the feeder idea as a way to stand out. Taking
a page from elite high schools, they're looking for -- and finding
-- ways to package students so they get noticed by the top grad
schools. Georgia Tech started handing out $250,000 in stipends for
undergrads to do research that looks good on med-school applications.
State schools from Wisconsin to Colorado are stepping up efforts
to bring grad schools to campus-recruiting fairs. And when a rejection
letter goes to a student from New College of Florida (No. 31 on
our list), administrators and faculty blitz the offending grad school
with phone calls about the strength of their curriculum.
tiny Pomona College in California, which sent a higher proportion
of its kids to Harvard Law this fall than Columbia or Duke. No.
13 on our list, it's created a separate office to handle grad-school
admissions and fellowships, including its own full-time director.
They do everything from grilling students in mock interviews ("How
do you deal with stress?") to hounding professors who've fallen
behind on their recommendation letters. Dean of Students Ann Quinley
pens about 100 testimonials a year herself. "It's a huge job,"
of course, wasn't always something families worried about in high
school. For years, the emphasis has been on finding the best undergraduate
college, with parents studying guidebooks and schools pumping up
everything from the faculty to the cafeteria food to draw kids in.
Even when they got there, students usually didn't worry much beyond
taking required courses (like the premeds always complaining about
organic chemistry). As for who got in to the Harvards and Yales
of the grad-school world, Ivy Leaguers often had the edge.
They still do.
Almost one out of every seven students in the new fall class at
Harvard Law came from, you guessed it, Harvard College. And it doesn't
stop there: According to Weekend Journal's survey, add in Ivy rivals
Yale and Princeton and the top three schools account for more than
750 students at our 15 grad schools, out of a pool of 5,100 openings.
Not that the grad schools, which have been criticized about a lack
of diversity, are apologizing for their Ivy addiction. "They've
done the work of selecting for us, to a large extent," says
Andrew Frantz, associate dean for admissions at Columbia University's
College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Beyond the top
Ivies, things tilt quickly in favor of small schools, like Williams
at No. 5 in our survey, Amherst at No. 9 and Swarthmore at 10. Indeed,
of our top 20 colleges, seven have a senior class smaller than 600
-- and only one graduates more than 2,000 students a year. Grad
schools told us these small liberal-arts colleges tend to do a better
job of advising their students, in areas like picking courses that
look good on an application. And when students work directly with
professors in small classes, they tend to get better recommendation
approach to ranking colleges is perfect, including ours. While most
of our top-15 grad school list are no-brainers, some of the names
are open to debate. (One, Stanford's MBA, might have made our list
but didn't because the most recent information we had was for the
2002 MBA class; based on that, the overall rankings wouldn't have
been significantly affected.) We relied heavily on student face
books, which may not include last-minute changes; depending on a
college's size, that could affect some of our rankings. And our
focus was on enrollment into the top schools, not how many students
questioning our emphasis on the grad schools we picked (No. 25 Cornell
disputed the survey's "lasting meaning"), few colleges
took any issue with our results. Most said they didn't keep these
kinds of numbers, which guidebooks haven't typically tracked, either.
All of which means families like the McKinnons of Corunna, Ind.,
have to do the guesswork. This spring, 18-year-old James McKinnon
turned down undergraduate offers from Chicago and Penn. His reasoning:
It's easier to stand out at a small place when grad-school applications
roll around. "My grades will be better," says Mr. McKinnon,
now at Wabash College (No. 59 on our list).
But what about
state schools? Parents have always fretted over whether sending
kids to less-expensive schools would hurt their postgraduate chances.
According to our survey, only Michigan made the top 30, and that's
with the help of Michigan Law, one of our 15 elites, taking more
than five dozen Wolverines in this fall's class. Among the other
well-known names, Virginia was 33, Berkeley came in at 41 and UCLA
was 61. "They seem a little reluctant to visit," says
advisor Glenn Cummings at the University of Virginia, who says three
top law schools he invited to come meet students this year never
got back to him.
argue that students can improve their chances by enrolling in their
honors programs, the "college within a college" option
at many top public institutions. Indeed, grad-school officials said
beefier course lineups and more rigorous requirements at these honors
programs can score points on an application. (Not always: One Harvard
Med official told us flat out, "Honors doesn't matter that
much to me.") In many cases, the honors colleges don't track
how their kids do, though that's starting to change as families
wake up to the feeder-school issue. The University of Washington
(No. 142) plans to start, partly in response to parent concerns.
if most people don't realize it, there's a bias in favor of some
schools that is practically built into the system. At law schools,
there's a number called the LCM -- the LSAT College Mean, which
tries to identify the students attending the "tougher"
colleges (usually Ivies and small liberal-arts schools). With each
new group of applicants, it evaluates schools based on their average
LSAT test scores; someone with so-so grades from a high-LCM school
can wind up looking better than a 4.0 student at a lesser college.
Besides, many admissions officers are Ivy alums themselves, says
Mark Meyerrose at Admissions Consultants Inc. "They're biased
toward elitist institutions because that's where they went to school,"
Of course, grad
schools say that no one factor decides a student's fate. Undergraduate
alma maters are only one of the things looked at, along with grades,
test scores, extracurricular activities and essays. And several
shied away from the notion of feeder colleges. "We don't have
a ranking of undergrad schools that are better or worse than others,"
says Richard Silverman, director of admissions at Yale's School
of Medicine. "That would be a terrible way to do business."
In the end,
the bigger question may be whether it's worth obsessing about Harvard
anyway. True, graduates of private law schools, including the elite
places, nabbed starting salaries 15% to 20% higher than their public-school
counterparts. But the tuitions are higher, too, with places like
Columbia costing students $38,000 a year -- compared with $14,000
for some highly regarded state schools. Even some MBA types are
starting to question the bottom line: One Stanford professor concluded
that a business degree often didn't mean truly higher pay, but instead
effectively got MBA graduates treated as a few years more senior
for compensation purposes.
Don't tell that
to Ryan O'Connor. To further his chances of getting into a top business
school, Mr. O'Connor just transferred from the University of Miami
to the Berklee College of Music in Boston this fall to study music
business and management. He figures Berklee professors are more
connected in the grad-school world. "That should help me,"
Nancy Keates, Lauren Mechling, Paula Szuchman and Heather Won Tesoriero
contributed to this article.
Traditionally, college rankings have
focused on test scores and grade averages of kids coming in the
door. But we wanted to find out what happens after they leave --
and try to get into prestigious grad schools.
We focused on 15 elite schools, five
each from medicine, law and business, to serve as our benchmark
for profiling where the students came from. Opinions vary, of course,
but our list reflects a consensus of grad-school deans we interviewed,
top recruiters and published grad-school rankings (including the
Journal's own MBA rankings). So for medicine, our schools were Columbia;
Harvard; Johns Hopkins; the University of California, San Francisco;
and Yale, while our MBA programs were Chicago; Dartmouth's Tuck
School; Harvard; MIT's Sloan School; and Penn's Wharton School.
In law, we looked at Chicago; Columbia; Harvard; Michigan; and Yale.
Our team of reporters fanned out to these schools
to find the alma maters for every student starting this fall, more
than 5,100 in all. Nine of the schools gave us their own lists,
but for the rest we relied mainly on "face book" directories
schools give incoming students. Of course, when it comes to "feeding"
grad schools, a college's rate is more important than the raw numbers.
(Michigan, for example, sent about twice the number as Georgetown,
but it's also more than three times the size.) So our feeder score
factors in class size.
How did colleges react to our list? Some were quick
to point out that it was only one year of data, and many said they
didn't track their feeder rates closely. "I have no way of
verifying this," a spokesman for Cornell said. Others said
they didn't think this was an important way to judge schools because
so many factors play into grad schools' decisions. Still, the colleges
in our list did not dispute our findings and neither did the grad
Not that they necessarily want it out there. "We
keep a lid on this data," says Mohan Boodram, director of admissions
and financial aid at Harvard Medical School. Otherwise, "high-school
students will think they have to go to certain schools."