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

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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.

Then along came US News and they ranked schools. I think that's inappropriate. I don't do rankings. I do journalism. I go to a school. I ask the students, "What's it like at this school?" I write down what they say. I'm like a restaurant critic, but for colleges.

What's the problem with rankings?

First, "What's the best college?" is the wrong question. The right question is, "What's the best college for me?"

Second, the US News rankings measure wealth.There's a bias against quality public schools because they don't have tremendous endowments. That's wrong. So I think it's a great source of statistical information. If they said, "Here are the facts, use your own weighting system,"  it might be useful. But for millions of kids to buy into this system is wrong.

But readers can easily turn ratings into rankings. If a Fiske guide says one college's academics are five-out-of-five and another school is four-out-of-five, there's an implicit ranking there. The first school has better academics.

My system is admittedly subjective. But it's informed not by a mathematical formula but by what students tell me about the quality of an institution. US News measures reputations, which are uninformed. What students tell us about academic culture, how seriously it's taken is much more helpful, I think.

One criticism of guides like yours is that they create an unfair feedback loop. You tell families what the best schools are, and they listen. They don't apply to any school not in the book. So a school doing some amazing things that doesn't make it into a Fiske Guide faces a structural disadvantage.

Well, I have to include the most selective schools. I also look for geographical representation, and representation of different types: Evangelical schools, Catholic schools, environmentally aware schools, technical schools. But if counselors say more students are reporting an excellent experience from a college not in the book, I check it out. I'm not running a popularity contest. I'm trying to serve readers. These college counselors are my best allies. Our goals are the same. We want the best fit for these kids.

You keep such a watchful eye on student experience at hundreds of colleges, so maybe you can respond to the widespread critique that academic standards are falling across the country including at the elite schools.

Here's what I've noticed. Thirty years ago, a college didn't mind being known as a party school. Today, that's not true. Compared to my write-ups from 25 years ago, there is much more emphasis on freshman academic orientation programs and seminars to give entering students at least one high-level college experience. This is a positive development. There is much more emphasis on undergraduate research - more undergrads working with faculty members, and more journals of undergraduate research.

I'm more aware of colleges promoting serious academics in innovative ways than I was 25 or 30 years ago. The reality backing that up? Harder to say.

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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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