College 2005 November 2005

Guide to the Guides

In 1979 the education expert Edward Fiske warned in these pages of a "promotional and marketing mentality" in the college-admissions process. Today his Fiske Guide to Colleges, one of the first to grade schools nationwide, fights for shelf space with a raft of competing rankings—a selection of which are evaluated here.

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Title:
The Best 357 Colleges, Princeton Review

Angle:
The Margaret Mead of the dorm room. Wide-ranging and dishy descriptions of both academics and day-to-day life on campus: the quality of cafeteria food; the availability of parties, booze, and drugs; and the happiness level of the student body.

Tone:
ENCYCLOPEDIA. Ratings of a school's quality of life and most distinctive features lead into a short essay that breaks down academics, student life, and the makeup of the student body. The often provocative quotations offer such nitty-gritty details as whether a school is cliquey and how much people cheat.

How schools are ranked:
Sixty-four lists rank schools by academics, campus politics, demographics, extracurriculars, and quality of life (and include such subcategories as "Dorms Like Palaces" and "Reefer Madness").

Who does the ranking:
A panel of "50 independent educational consultants from throughout the nation" helps pick the best schools; the rankings by category are compiled from anonymous student surveys.

Most helpful for...
... students who want expert opinion and insider gossip.

Best feature:
COMPREHENSIVENESS. The two-page descriptions provide a quick but complete introduction to each school; the format makes side-by-side comparisons a snap.

Worst feature:
A BIT DRAB? The grayish paper could use an upgrade, but that's a quibble. This guide doesn't lack much in the way of charm, ease of use, or informativeness.

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Title:
Choosing the Right College, Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Angle:
Bill Buckley without the wit. The emphasis is on "right"; it's an "absolutely prejudiced" (and long-winded) guide for students who prefer their academic canons and administration buildings unmolested.

Tone:
HISTORY TEXTBOOK. This guide has the highest page-to-college ratio of all; a long narrative history of each school ("In 1833 Alsatian pastor John Fredrick Oberlin sent two Yankee ministers west to found a college …") offers every detail on professors, campus politics, and courses about dead white males that a conservative might want.

How schools are ranked:
There's no explicit ranking, but descriptions tend to fall into one of two categories: left-leaning or just right.

Who does the ranking:
A staff of researchers, consultants, and contributing editors do the ranking; alums and ISI staffers write the essays on individual schools.

Most helpful for...
... intellectually minded members of the vast right-wing conspiracy.

Best feature:
OBSESSIVE DETAIL. Conservatives who want the full dossier on a college will be able to find out how it weathered every battle in the culture wars.

Worst feature:
MISLEADING COVER. Though conservative to its core, the guide doesn't telegraph its politics. A warning label might be in order for unwary liberals.

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Title:
America's Best Colleges, U.S. News & World Report

Angle:
The 800-pound gorilla. It has made itself the arbiter of higher education's pecking order by sorting 1,400 schools into tiers and rankings based on a single ostensibly comprehensive formula.

Tone:
FINANCIAL PAGES. A delight for those who dream in spreadsheets, this guide consists of page after page of eye-glazing data, and lacks the details that bring a school to life. (It does, however, offer a long essay on how to game every part of the admissions process, from test prep to financial aid.)

How schools are ranked:
In addition to the multi-tiered caste system that ranks every school, U.S. News provides more than 150 category-specific rankings: "best value" southern universities, top schools for undergraduate aerospace-engineering, etc.

Who does the ranking:
Schools report fifteen "indicators of academic quality" —a combination of hard data (retention rate, money spent on faculty, etc.) and a survey in which administrators grade their competitors.

Most helpful for...
... status-hungry meritocrats.

Best feature:
HARD DATA. Though U.S. News—bashing has become a beloved higher-education pastime, the magazine can't be beat for objective data about how schools stack up.

Worst feature:
REDUCTIVENESS. Though the guide satisfies the "best of" fetish, it offers only numbers, not the details that actually determine how happy a student will be.

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