What You Don't Get About Admissions: Q&A with College Guru Edward Fiske

The author of America's best-selling college guides tells all: how rankings fail students, why tuition won't stop climbing at Ivy League schools, and what parents don't understand about the admissions process

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Edward B. Fiske is the author of Fiske Guide to College, the most popular college guide in America. He is also the author of many other college guidance books, including "Fiske Guide to Getting Into the Right College." He was Education Editor for the New York Times. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

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What's the one thing parents don't understand about the application process?

At the beginning, parents don't always get the importance of the "fit" or "match" issue. I think parents may be overly concerned with the prestige factor, the I-want-this-bumper-sticker-on-the-SUV factor. There is an admissions officer joke that you wouldn't be surprised to be driving along the road and see a prestigious college decal that said "Also Accepted At: Cornell, Pomona, Northwestern..."

The incredible growth in tuition over the last 30 years: Is it all about the race for prestige?

There is a prestige element. People make the false assumption that cost equals quality. Colleges are raising tuition because market research said they should. George Washington University in D.C. is a great example. They raised tuition because research showed that they had a lower tuition than American University, so students considered them worse. Now they have one of the highest tuitions in the country, and their applications are way up.

Among the elite private schools, tuition is driven by what the market will bear. It's that simple. They charge a higher tuition because they can. There is literature showing that colleges behave like any nonprofit institution. They raise as much as they can, and spend as much to improve offerings. Faced with the choice between attracting pouring money into financial aid or spending it on something to improve quality of offerings, they'll often opt for the latter choice.

Elite colleges charge higher (and higher, and higher) tuition for one simple reason: Because they can.

Your college guide, which is the most popular in the country, is now about three decades old. Why did you first decide to make it?

I was the education editor of the New York Times in the late 1970s, and colleges were getting more aggressive in their marketing. Somebody needed to come in on the side of the consumer.

The guide was instantly controversial. Colleges were not used to having people be critical of them. We said, for example, that Syracuse was didn't put enough emphasis on undergrad education and that another newly-co-ed college wasn't a good place for women. Colleges weren't used to being criticized. They got mad. They also listened. Syracuse invested a huge amount in undergraduate education.

Your guide has ratings, but not rankings. Why?

I've always rated the schools on a one-to-five scale for Academics, Social Life, and Quality of Life. Originally I rated with stars. But people were adding up the stars to come out with a cumulative rating, and I didn't mean for that to happen. So I changed the symbols so people wouldn't add them up.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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