Malcolm Gladwell, in his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the art of battling Giants, describes what he calls his little fish/big pond observations. He noted that no matter what the entering SAT scores were of a particular university, the graduation rates in each programme were roughly the same. In other words if you were in the top third in Harvard's entering Math class (with an SAT score in Math of 753), you had about a 54% chance of graduating in your major. If you were in the bottom third (SAT 581) your chances dropped to 15%. However, if you went to Hartwick College, where the top third of entrants had SAT scores of 569 (12 points below the lowest third at Harvard) you still had a 55% chance of graduating successfully in Math. In other words by choosing Hartwick over Harvard you more than tripled your odds of graduating! Gladwell asserts that it is not the rigour of the programmes that are that much different, but rather it is the culture of the cohort with whom you enter. He states:
The more elite an educational institution is, the worse students feel about their own academic abilities. Students who would be at the top of their class at a good school can easily fall to the bottom of a really good school. Students who would feel that they have mastered a subject at a good school can have the feeling that they are falling farther and farther behind at really good school. And that feeling - as subjective and ridiculous and irrational as it may be - matters. How you feel about your abilities - your academic "self-concept" - in the context of your classroom shapes your willingness to tackle challenges and finish difficult tasks. It is crucial element in your motivation and confidence.
Gladwell goes on to note that the post-graduate career prospects and tracks are basically no different among different ranks of universities and in fact those students who graduate from "second tier" schools are far more likely to publish and be seen as leaders in their fields.
So, back to the original discussion about university placement versus university performance. It would appear that if secondary schools put too great an emphasis (both with their students and in their marketing) on promoting acceptance into top tier, big name universities, then they may actually be doing their graduates a disservice. A more effective university placement strategy would be to research to find out at which universities your students have the most success. Which colleges and programmes are the best "fit" for students coming out of your learning environment. It may not made for the flashiest marketing, but it will be a much more accurate predictor of success and, in the end, be the best possible outcome for your students.
So the next time an independent school admissions person or Head tells you that "95% of our students get into the university of their first choice", ask them the obvious question: "How did they do once they got there?" Those are the numbers that you really want to hear.