AS RELIABLE as the cascading autumn leaves, this year's crop of college guidebooks has arrived at newsstands everywhere, and as usual, each purports to give the "inside scoop" on colleges, while bestowing on them a subjective, and often dubious, ranking.
Make no mistake about it: The guidebooks are big business. National magazines such as U.S. News & World Report and Money, each of which ranks colleges yearly, say the college-rating issues are top sellers. But how long would they be in business if they did not create the impression that they are telling you something that the colleges themselves will not?
Well, turnabout is fair play. It's time somebody ranked the guidebooks, giving parents and students the "inside scoop" on how they're put together and how they come up with those rankings.
My system doesn't depend on how the institution I work for is ranked by each publication. I have no ax to grind; St. Lawrence University fares quite well. Rather, I offer this list in the same spirit as do the publications -- to allow families to have as much information as possible before they invest in a college education.
Generally, there are two types of guides: those that rely primarily, but not exclusively, on statistics (U.S. News & World Report, Money, Barron's, Peterson's Guide to Four-Year Colleges), and those that rely on opinion (The Fiske Guide, Princeton Review, The Insider's Guide). Those that rank schools usually lean more on statistics.
Unfortunately, most of the rankings are not based on the quality of the education program offered at the colleges. Instead, they tend to reflect the effectiveness of admissions programs.
So in the guidebook editors' system, SAT scores, students' rank in high school and the percentage of students accepted from applications are more important than the curriculum a college offers and how well it it taught.
Also, the information used for the rankings usually comes from questionnaires. A typical one will ask for the "average SAT" LTC scores of entering first-year students. Is that the mean score or the median score?
They can differ anywhere from 20 to 30 points at a given school.
Even the question of how many students there are can be thorny. Full-time? Or full-time and part-time? Just those on the campus, or campus students and those studying elsewhere with sometimes vague affiliation? Colleges can get really creative when it comes to questions about class size. At my school, for example, many "courses" have just one student (independent study is counted as a class), and the largest class has 130 students.
Increasingly, parents have questions of accountability once their sons and daughters enroll. Will they be challenged intellectually? Will they learn to speak and write well? To think critically? And after they graduate, will they find satisfying work? Will they find a job at all? None of the college guides tackles questions like these.
That said, here's how I rank some of the most popular guidebooks now on the market, from best to worst:
1) Peterson's Guide to Selective Colleges: Gives the information any informed student and parents would want, without ranking or rating gimmicks.
2) Barron's Profiles of American Colleges: Includes descriptions of campus environment, student life, financial resources, curriculum, number of faculty with highest terminal degrees, number of faculty teaching undergraduates, information on admissions, financial aid, international offerings and computer availability. Barron's rates schools but doesn't rank them.
3) U.S. News & World Report: Ranking is based 75 percent on admissions selectivity, faculty resources, educational resources per student, graduation rates and freshmen retention rates, and 25 percent on "reputation." This rather nebulous attribute is determined by information from college presidents and deans of admissions who choose to participate. How can people responsibly evaluate colleges other than their own, especially when they are competitors for students? Good question, but it's one that the magazine and corresponding guidebook don't address.
4) The Insider's Guide to the Colleges (Yale Daily News): Brief statistics are given, but the volume is mostly rhetoric, with opinion sprinkled throughout. The information does change from year to year, indicating that this publication pays attention to the information it requests annually.
5) The Fiske Guide to Colleges: This book consists almost entirely of subjective judgments, ostensibly based on information sent in by students at each campus. The language remains essentially the same year after year, indicating that the information provided by current students has little impact.
Guidebooks can be useful tools in the college selection process if they present information free of manipulated interpretations. Students and their families should also be allowed to decide what's important to them. What's dangerous is the perception of precision the books and magazines create. And whatever statistics can quantify, they won't be able to measure the most important consideration for students in the selection process: a college's values.
Joel Wincowski is dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.