Digital art illustration of a student split between two classrooms - one a large lecture hall, and the other a much smaller class with students seated around a table.
Design by Hannah Willingham.

Students often inform their college choices on a variety of factors, some being more prevalent than others. For three-quarters of the population, this decision is based upon the institution’s academic quality, reputation and its availability of desired programs and job opportunities. Others, however, may prefer to choose their school based upon the environment of its campus. Needless to say, there is no one set reason that people choose a college.

In my case, the process was a little different. Instead of trying to choose which college would have best fulfilled certain requirements, I blanket-applied to nearly every research university in the state. I had figured that whichever school I ended up at would work well enough for me to graduate and move on with my life. It was only when I had heard about how great the University of Michigan was in terms of prestige and its quality of education, however, that I finally made up my mind and paid my deposit. 

And here I am, more than a year later, having just completed my freshman year. In the past year, I have learned a lot, albeit with many stumbles along the way. I really do love this school, and I appreciate the value of a U-M degree. I am confident in saying that prestige and the quality of an education are not necessarily correlated, and that a school should be chosen on more than name alone.

In the fall semester of my freshman year, I took MATH 116, or Calculus II. For those that may be unaware, most sections of this course are taught by a Graduate Student Instructor, and the calculus sequence courses are considered “weeder classes” by many of my peers. My GSI was extremely knowledgeable, but not the best teacher. Paired with the quickly intensifying complexity of the course, I was left behind fairly quickly. As I currently retake the same course at Washtenaw Community College for transfer credit, I have been surprised at how much more I am understanding the content as a result of the professor’s teaching style. 

There may be — and likely are — many people that have found the teaching style of the highly complex U-M math courses to be much better, but the “one size fits all” approach of teaching does not necessarily work the best with the argument that courses are taught better at larger, prestigious institutions. In the end, I am still learning calculus better at a smaller community college than at a “world-class” university. 

Beyond anecdotes, a study conducted at Columbia University and Yeshiva University suggested that the only statistically significant merit that elite colleges had in comparison to smaller schools was in the “cognitive complexity” of the schoolwork, despite “levels of standards and expectations” being similar between the types of schools. “Cognitive complexity” represented the overall difficulty of the coursework, while “levels of standards and expectations” represented the level of understanding achieved by students. To some extent, my experience reflects this as well. While taking MATH 116 on campus exposed me to some of the more difficult implementations of calculus, I never really understood them at that level until I was taught the fundamentals properly at WCC. 

Although I can only speak from my own experience, I do not think that there is anything that inherently sets apart the quality of education between larger, “elite” schools and smaller colleges. I would actually argue that a college choice should be based on everything but the curriculum that it has to offer, as schools fundamentally try to teach the same things.

Even the value of a degree from an elite school and its salary outcomes can be placed into question, with some studies showing that graduates from elite schools do not necessarily earn higher salaries than graduates from smaller or less prestigious schools. However, in some cases, such as the prestige of a business degree, there is a statistically significant difference that does impact job placement and future salaries. But for programs that do not necessarily benefit from higher prestige, what reason is there to go to an elite school given the opportunity?

There is no one way that I can answer this question, because even if I had a response, it would not apply to everyone. The fact of the matter is that each individual’s answer will vary based on what they want out of a college education. For some, college may just be an affordable way to get a degree and their decision to attend a cheaper school is for the sake of long-term savings. For others, college may offer a smaller, tight-knit environment at a school where faculty can dedicate more time to each student. Some may opt to attend a larger school for the networking opportunities. Preferences differ, and there is no one way to quantify what the best school is for everyone.

I do not think that I see myself leaving the University of Michigan. I chose it because it had the most prestige out of any school that I applied to, but I have found myself loving the school and the people here so much that I cannot see myself anywhere else. That being said, I do not think choosing a school based on prestige is a good idea. If you are thinking about coming to the University or transferring in or out, I can say with confidence that this school is amazing, but that you should choose a school based on what you want out of it instead of from the US News rankings.

Mohammed Hasan is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at