College 2005 November 2005

Guide to the Guides

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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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Title:
The Insider's Guide to the Colleges 2006, Yale Daily News

Angle:
The Ivy League lowdown. A bunch of ink-stained Elis get dirt on academics, campus environment, and the social scene from their peers at other schools, and offer a perspective unfiltered by grown-ups.

Tone:
GOSSIP SHEET. Offers an unvarnished view of college life, through snarky anonymous quotations: Caltech's curriculum is "like drinking from a firehose"; at Case "a large portion of guys are already in serious relationships with their video game consoles."

How schools are ranked:
The editors create "Insider's Top-Ten Lists," such as "Schools That Attract Famous Students" and "Schools With the Rowdiest Parties."

Who does the ranking:
The staff of the Yale Daily News chats up more than a hundred "friends [and] friends of friends" and randomly selected students at the profiled schools each year.

Most helpful for...
... applicants who put a premium on student life (and are willing to trust Yalies).

Best feature:
STRAIGHT TALK. The guide feels as intimate as a late-night chat in a dorm room, and even offers a glossary of terms such as "beer goggles" and "townie."

Worst feature:
HE SAID, SHE SAID. The heavily anecdotal style sometimes leads to a Rashomon problem: the entries can be inconsistent and overly influenced by individual students' pet peeves.

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Title:
50 Best Colleges for African Americans 2004, Black Enterprise magazine

Angle:
The U.S. News of the black bourgeoisie. This guide essentially retools the leading formula from an African-American angle, adding how-to articles on succeeding at college and landing a corporate job.

Tone:
JUST THE FACTS. The amount of information is paltry: a school's ranking for the past two years plus the data behind it. (Students who want a fleshed-out view should track down the out-of-print DayStar Guide to Colleges for African American Students [2000], written by the researcher behind this guide.)

How schools are ranked:
The guide considers "large or well-known" schools and those with an African-American enrollment of at least three percent (sorry, Colby) and ranks them based on academics, social life, and the number of black students who enroll and graduate.

Who does the ranking:
The DayStar ranking is based on black enrollment and graduation rates, and survey results from 1,855 black administrators rating the quality of academic and social life for blacks at each school.

Most helpful for...
... upwardly mobile African-Americans.

Best feature:
TIGHT FOCUS. No other guide assembles comprehensive measures of how well colleges integrate and educate black students.

Worst feature:
ONE-TRICK PONY. Those looking for a more detailed picture of the different schools will be disappointed, and the advice is strictly for corporate climbers ("You don't want to become a social butterfly to the detriment of your schoolwork").

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Title:
Gay Guide to Colleges 2004, Out magazine

Angle:
Queer eye for the gay teen. With flamboyance and wit, Out cuts straight to what matters most (musical theater and beefcake).

Tone:
DIRTY MINDS. The editors never met a double entendre they didn't like. (The entry for Yale—"Best Campus for Rich and Powerful Gays"—begins, "Whether you're into ego-stroking your ivory tower or cockily hobnobbing with WASPs in dominant positions ...")

How schools are ranked:
Editors pick a top school for each of fourteen categories, from "Hottest Gay Students" (UC Berkeley) to "Campus With the Most Future Fashion Dictators" (Parsons School of Design).

Who does the ranking:
A reporter on the college beat gets the inside scoop on gay campus life. The ranking methods behind, say, "Largest Gay Endowment" are, unsurprisingly, somewhat unscientific.

Most helpful for...
... Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Best feature:
SENSE OF HUMOR. For the frazzled, Out is a nice antidote to application anxiety. The list of "Sixteen Sweet, Sweet (Real) Gay-Sounding College Mascots" is worth the cover price alone.

Worst feature:
SHALLOWNESS. This guide's bitchy charm is also its tragic flaw. Gay students curious about how they will fare in day-to-day life on campus will probably want to look elsewhere.

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