The Oncologist Fallacy (or Why University Rankings are Unreliable)

This is an argument that I often receive when debating the merit of applying to a university solely based on their prestige or ranking. Ming, sorry, I don’t mean to pick on you, but you’ve articulated the argument very well.

If getting treatment from the best oncologist in the world is within the means for a cancer patient, chances are she will do so.

Besides the obvious, that education is nothing like medicine, there are a few reasons why statements like that don’t stand when it comes to choosing a university, or choosing your educational direction in general.

1. You don’t go to see an oncologist if you’re having problems with your foot, or if you’re feeling fine. Similarly, not every university is suited for everyone. Harvard is often the standard for “top university”, but you wouldn’t be happy at Harvard if you prefer smaller classrooms and you’re very artistic and rather hippie-ish. As far as I know, Harvard doesn’t have a great creative arts/creative industries faculty. To use a statement now stressed by many college counselors and university faculty everywhere, university is a MATCH, not a TROPHY. You should be aiming for the school that best matches your needs, ideals, and personality – even if it turns out to be an obscure school in the middle of nowhere.

2. There isn’t a single “best oncologist”; no one doctor holds the monopoly on quality. Just because XYZ Doctor managed to hold the top post, doesn’t mean all the other doctors below him are crap. Similarly, just because XYZ University did not rate very high on the rankings, does not mean they’re terrible and are not worth a look. There are many brilliant universities (and doctors) out there, particularly in regions like Western Europe, Scandinavia, Africa, South America, New Zealand/rest of Oceania, and other places that just don’t figure into traditional ranks. It is really stupid to think that only a handful of universities are able to provide a top-notch learning environment.

3. Best according to who? Rankings, despite looking objective, are actually rather subjective – it all depends on how the ranking body decides to calculate their criteria. How would you put into numbers something like “satisfaction of student body” or “best match for your needs”? The U.S. News, which is generally the “gold standard” for US university rankings, have come under fire for putting in false information for colleges that refuse to participate in the rankings. So are the rankings necessarily reliable? Not when you have a growing backlash of colleges against it. It’s not just America either; there has been criticism over the UK’s Times Higher Education List, as well as Canada’s Maclean’s list.

4. How honest is the oncologist? It’s not just the rankings body that messes up numbers; some universities are also cheating at the game. There is a major lack of transparency on both sides about how the numbers are calculated and calibrated. There is no way for us to know that the numbers are at all accurate or representative, so why rely on them as your main – or only – source of information. It would be far better to do more research on each university individually, getting information straight from the source, and making up your own minds based on your own needs.

5. Everything happens in context. You may have found the best oncologist, but what if they live too far away? Or they’re booked up for months? Or if they’re too expensive for your budget? Similarly, there are many other considerations to make when choosing a university. Where are they located – is it an atmosphere you enjoy, is the weather good, can you afford to live there? How about the student body – how homogenized (or not) are they? Is it small or big? Are the classes heavy on theory, or are they more practical? Does the school expect you to do an internship or semester abroad as part of the course? Does one course differ from another in style? There are many aspects that make up the learning process of a university, and are things that aren’t necessarily reflected well in rankings.

6. Can you afford it? Another argument that is usually made for going to a “top university” is that they supposedly give you a lot of funding, so you can afford to go. Never mind their extreme selectiveness; it is extremely difficult to get funding for studies, particularly if you’re an international student. In many countries, international students are expected to pay full-fee, and scholarships are highly limited. FAFSA, which is the US Government’s way of working out financial aid, is not applicable to international students. The world of financial aid is mysterious and complex, especially if you’re a “high-ranking” university – funding resources are limited and not all of them can afford to (or want to) support students that can’t pay full fee. Interestingly, there are a growing number of smaller-scale universities that are open and willing to give full financial support – they are often more attuned to student welfare (treating the students as individuals with needs and desires) and don’t have to deal with too much internal competition.

Looking for a good university or college? Don’t put too much stock on ratings. Do your own research, and you’re more likely to find the choice that’s best for you – and save a lot of money, time, effort, and heartache.

Relevant Reading:

22 Responses

  1. I agree with you here. ‘Best’ really means best for what and for whom, which ultimately depends on the person and his needs. This was why I said ‘for a cancer patient’, because cancer patients, not those with ENT problems, seek an oncologist for treatment. And I did deliberately enclosed parentheses on “best” in my previous comment to indicate the inherent subjectivity in defining what’s “best” when it comes to university rankings.

    I believe there is no fallacy with my argument if you look carefully. My assumptions are indicated quite clearly throughout my previous comments and presented minimal disagreement with your original post. =)

    A few minor quibbles:
    Item 5: I agree too that everything happens in a context – another reason why ‘within the means’ appeared in the line you quoted.

    Item 6: Actually, a student will definitely get full funding if she makes it into one of the international need-blind colleges, which include Harvard, Yale and Williams. As long as she gets admitted, these universities guarantee that finance would not be a problem to attend, and aid will be provided based on need.

    =)

  2. Oh ya, to clarify, I have never encouraged anybody to apply to universities based ‘solely on prestige and rankings’ – and will very much discourage people from doing so.

    I have no intention to disagree with your main point – urging students to take back their education. From my first comment in the post ‘take back your education’, the intention was to highlight the case where students who apply to “top universities” may have proper justifications rather than based solely on prestige and rankings. =)

  3. Oh, I’m not saying “MING YOU ARE WRONG AND STUPID”, it’s just that I’ve heard the exact argument before (and it’s always doctors, for some weird reason) so your phrasing was apt.

    And definitely go for these top colleges if they fit you – just don’t go for the name only. If the perfect school for you is famous, great; if not, that’s cool too.

    could someone lead me to proof re: funding? I have had a couple of people tell me you get full funding for places like Harvard, but I’ve also talked to some other people who have tried to get into said colleges and gave me the complete opposite. I haven’t managed to find anything conclusive either way (I tend to run into stuff for domestic students). Also, it’s not just the uni fees that are of concern; there’s also all the living costs, which are terribly high.

  4. Haha… whoa… the caps are a bit.. err… shocking… Haha.. sorry if i came across as rude or something =\

    For funding, I think need-blind financial aid for international applicants is a recent development… I am very sure that Harvard Yale Princeton MIT Williams and Middlebury offers international need-blind since my friends and I all applied to universities last year..

    You can contact me on MSN or my email if you like to know more =) =)

  5. Hmm… this should be sufficient enough proof?: http://tinkosong.com/2006/02/25/yale-university-need-based-need-blind/

  6. That’s just Yale; it doesn’t speak for all the Ivies.

    I asked a US college counselor and she led me to this: http://www.edupass.org/finaid/

    also, there is still a fallacy in your argument: it assumes there is only one “best” option, when there is most definitely at least a few that qualify. Even if we take the “best for you” position, that still doesn’t mean there’s only ONE “best”.

  7. I happily agree and concede that I have made an error previously, so here’s my new, slightly revised argument:

    If getting treatment from among the best oncologists in the world is within the means for a cancer patient, chances are she will do so.

    Any fallacy?

    The point is not that there is only one best – the point is that given an option, people will opt for the better choice, if they can, for what they need – food, shoes, computer etc, based on their own criteria or judgment of what’s among the best.

    The same goes to design, music, etc. Musicians would like to go to the Julliard school, or the Peabody institute (or many other leading institutions) for training if they can. Besides, I have never mentioned on any occasion there’s only one best. The line you quoted was to highlight a general principle.

    Please read the tinkosong article in its entirety, for it mentions the schools that offer international need-blind financial aid. Yale actually speaks for most Ivies (or similar schools).

    Moreover, I quote from Edupass.org/financial aid:
    “There is **very little** financial aid for foreign nationals to study in the US, with the possible exception of citizens of Canada and Mexico.”
    The “very little” refers to the few schools including Ivies that offer international need-blind financial aid.

    Here are proof for the 6 schools I know of that offers international need-blind financial aid:

    1) Harvard (“Our financial aid policies apply equally to international students and to U.S. citizens.”)
    http://www.admissions.college.harvard.edu/utilities/faq/international/financial/index.html

    2) Yale: Yale has already been covered, but a quick check on Yale’s website will confirm.

    3) MIT (“We have a single set of financial aid policies that apply to current as well as incoming students, regardless of citizenship or permanent residence.”):
    http://web.mit.edu/sfs/financial_aid/enhancement_QandA.html

    4) Princeton (“Princeton has a need-blind admission policy, which means we evaluate student credentials without considering financial circumstances. This policy covers all admission applicants, including international students.”):
    http://www.princeton.edu/admission/financialaid/financial_aid_faqs/

    5) Dartmouth:
    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~news/releases/2008/01/22.html

    The same goes for Williams and Middlebury. Many merit-based scholarships are offered to international students too.

    Finally, talking to a US counselor from an Asian/non-US school may give a better picture. Here is another source of information:
    http://www.rjc.edu.sg/usapps/FAQ/$$$matters.asp

  8. are comments moderated now?? =\

  9. I couldn’t get my previous comment through:

    I happily agree and concede that I have made an error previously, so here’s my new, slightly revised argument:

    If getting treatment from among the best oncologists in the world is within the means for a cancer patient, chances are she will do so.

    Any fallacy?

    The point is not that there is only one best – the point is that given an option, people will opt for the better choice, if they can, for what they need – food, shoes, computer etc, based on their own criteria or judgment of what’s among the best.

    The same goes to design, music, etc. Musicians would like to go to the Julliard school, or the Peabody institute (or many other leading institutions) for training if they can. Besides, I have never mentioned on any occasion there’s only one best. The line you quoted was to highlight a general principle.

    Please read the tinkosong article in its entirety, for it mentions the schools that offer international need-blind financial aid. Yale actually speaks for most Ivies (or similar schools).

    Moreover, I quote from Edupass.org/financial aid:
    “There is **very little** financial aid for foreign nationals to study in the US, with the possible exception of citizens of Canada and Mexico.”
    The “very little” refers to the few schools including Ivies that offer international need-blind financial aid.

    Here are proof for the 6 schools I know of that offers international need-blind financial aid:

    1) Harvard (“Our financial aid policies apply equally to international students and to U.S. citizens.”)
    http://www.admissions.college.harvard.edu/utilities/faq/international/financial/index.html

    2) Yale: Yale has already been covered, but a quick check on Yale’s website will confirm.

    3) MIT (“We have a single set of financial aid policies that apply to current as well as incoming students, regardless of citizenship or permanent residence.”):
    http://web.mit.edu/sfs/financial_aid/enhancement_QandA.html

    4) Princeton (“Princeton has a need-blind admission policy, which means we evaluate student credentials without considering financial circumstances. This policy covers all admission applicants, including international students.”):
    http://www.princeton.edu/admission/financialaid/financial_aid_faqs/

    5) Dartmouth:
    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~news/releases/2008/01/22.html

    The same goes for Williams and Middlebury. Many merit-based scholarships are offered to international students too.

    Finally, talking to a US counselor from an Asian/non-US school may give a better picture. Here is another source of information:
    http://www.rjc.edu.sg/usapps/FAQ/$$$matters.asp

  10. er, they shouldn’t be. They could be caught by the spam catcher if you have more than one link though.

    (edit: found them! They did indeed get caught by Akismet’s spam catcher. They tend to catch comments that have more than one link in them.)

  11. Just because they’re need-blind doesn’t make them automatic; it just means that your financial need is not taken into consideration when deciding scholarships. Scholarships are still extremely competitive, and there is no guarantee that being admitted gets you one. That’s the proof I’m looking for, and that’s not what I’ve seen yet.

  12. I finally understand what you mean now by difficulty in obtaining financial aid. Haha.

    Financial aid is different from scholarship. Financial aid is a guarantee that aid will be given based on need automatically once a student is admitted.

    Longer version:
    International need-blind financial aid awards are offered as long as students get admitted. It is a *guarantee* that being admitted automatically provide students aid. Yeaps, ‘need-blind’ means that admissions decisions are made without consideration of financial need. But the award will be given based on the finance office’s evaluation of the students need – which are really generous.

    Essentially, as long as a student can secure a place at international need-blind schools, finance will definitely (really!) not be a problem.

    Furthermore, Harvard and Yale guarantees 100% aid to admitted students coming from family with household income less than USD$60,000.

    I know this my sound unbelievable, but it’s really true! Fastest way to confirm is to call the financial aid office of any of the universities I’ve listed. Alternatively, ask any of your friends at those universities.

    =)

    [My previous comment appeared twice.. =) ]

  13. (this whole discussion feels like dejavu…)

    Scholarships are a form of financial aid. Financial aid is the big umbrella of services that assist students with paying their costs for education – this includes scholarships, loans, work-study agreements, etc. They are all difficult to obtain, no matter how smart or poor or amazing or whatever you are.

  14. It also depends on the country. In Australia, I find that university rankings are a good guide to the quality of a university, our smaller/private universities simply aren’t good enough. Big, state-funded universities are where ALL the action is. If you’re looking in the US, on the other hand, small, private universities, while low ranked, offer excellent education, environment and student support.

  15. ok.

    for US universities, or those that I have listed at least, financial aid is separate from scholarships, and financial aid is awarded as long as you need it – and the prerequisite is that you are admitted.

    as for other countries, i’m not qualified to comment – but what i have said all along is based on US universities.

  16. Need-blind refers to admissions. And as to whether all of your demonstrated need will be met once you’ve been fortunate enough to be offered admission… depends on the school. There ARE some schools that GUARANTEE to meet 100% of demonstrated need of all accepted students (see http://projectonstudentdebt.org/pc_institution.php) , and there are also US schools that are free to all accepted students (e.g. Cooper Union – but you need to be a US Perm. Resident, I think – and Berea – http://www.berea.edu/prospectivestudents/tuitioncosts/default.asp). Needless to say, admission to these schools is extremely competitive. In those instances, once you’re in, you’re pretty much good to go. And the financial aid websites of the individual colleges are always the best resource for the most up-to-date information.

    (Follow me — butwait — on Twitter for more college counseling “fun”… )

  17. those that i have listed guarantee 100% of demonstrated need..

  18. Basically, financial aid is automatic — as long as you get admitted, you get financial aid!!! Financial aid is not “difficult to obtain”; in fact, it is very easy to obtain. (Sadly, because attending one of these schools is basically free, for most Malaysians anyway, admissions to these colleges are extremely competitive). This applies to all the colleges that ming has listed, as well as several other US colleges.

    – from a Malaysian who is studying at one of those “top universities” mentioned and who is very happy there, having participated in really cool projects which are completely covered by the univ’s huge endowment. For example, this Malaysian has participated in study abroad programs for credit, worked in a brewery for three months, volunteered in a homeless shelter in Argentina, studied the process of silk-making in Thai factories — all expenses covered. Such opportunities, of course, are only possible in “top universities” … because they are the only ones rich enough to foot the bill.

  19. ming has already tried to explain this in her/ his previous post, but it seems to be not getting through somehow.

    For these “top universities,” the poorer you are, the better. These universities shower financial aid (which are made up of 95% scholarship, 5% workstudy) to all admitted poor students — ask any Malaysian studying there. And I use the term “poor” in relative terms. “Poor,” according to the financial aid office for Harvard and Yale, is anyone earning less than ~$60,000 a year. These “poor” students get their education for free.

    Whereas a smaller private university who doesn’t have the $35 billion dollar endowment of Harvard or the $20 billion dollar endowment of Princeton would find it tough to provide the average Malaysian student with a free education. And so the average Malaysian student wouldn’t be able to afford the hefty price tag of going to the smaller private university.

  20. That’s good to know🙂

    However, they are still super selective, and there are other non-Ivy unis that offer the same thing (Shelly’s list has about 60 I believe) so it’s still a bit dodgy to base your applications on whoever can give you the most money. It can be a consideration after your acceptance is confirmed, and sometimes you can leverage one uni’s offer to get a better offer from elsewhere. But it’s extremely dangerous to apply only on the basis of money, As with everything else, there are more than one factor.

  21. You can find funding for an international student , it not that hard to find. Search our free database at Freetoapply.com.

  22. Just to clarify for anyone interested, the ivies do not actually give scholarships; they award financial aid based on need. The aid can come in the form of loans + grants + work study. For a few ivies, the loan amounts are converted now into grants, as they no longer require loans.

    Other institutions, like Stanford, Duke, Rice, etc. give scholarships as a mechanism for encouraging particular students, regardless of income level, to choose their institution over another. Hence, Tiger Woods’ free ride for his brief stint at Stanford. The ivies do not award athletic , artistic, or, even, merit based scholarships.

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