September 23, 2010


The Best 373 Colleges, 2011 Edition. By Robert Franek, Tom Meltzer, Christopher Maier, Erik Olson, Julie Doherty, Eric Owens, Anne DeWitt, Kristen O’Toole, Adam Davis and Mukul Bakhshi. Princeton Review/Random House. $22.99.

     Want to know the top 50 “best value” private colleges in the United States? The list is in this book – on half a page. The top 50 “best value” public colleges? That’s the other half of the page. The 20 colleges with the worst food? One-fifth of a page. The 20 with the best college newspapers? Another one-fifth. The information in The Best 373 Colleges, 2011 Edition is so compressed that the two pages allotted to each individual college seem positively generous.

     And those two pages are really packed. Every campus profile includes basic descriptive and statistical information, from student-to-faculty ratio to class sizes to ethnic makeup of the student body; ratings for quality of life, fire safety and being “green”; student comments on academics, campus life and more; Princeton Review staff comments on admissions and financial aid; and a blurb (rarely of value) from each school’s admissions office. Tucked away in small type on one side of one of the two pages is a fascinating item called “applicants also look at and often prefer…and sometimes prefer.” Sometimes it says “and rarely prefer.” This is a wonderful, if unconventional, place to start using this top-notch college guide: find a college in which you know you are interested and get an instant cross-reference (a hyperlink, but in print) to other institutions that other applicants also tend to consider. If you are thinking of Scripps College, for example, this could lead you to Pomona, Occidental, Stanford or Georgetown – which you might not have previously thought of (at least not all of them). Considering Miami University of Ohio? You might also check out Washington University in St. Louis, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. And so on. The “prefer” data are not given for all schools, which is a shame (nothing for New York University, Sarah Lawrence College or Harvard College, for example), but when they do appear, they can be a great entry point for a college search.

     The Best 373 Colleges, 2011 Edition can be overwhelming if you don’t find some simple way to get into it. It runs more than 800 oversized pages and is so stuffed with college information, lists, percentages, financial facts, selectivity ratings and more that it can make the already difficult task of choosing the right college seem even harder. One look at this book can be enough to send a high-school student racing to his or her guidance counselor for a lengthy session of personal help. Except that few high-school guidance counselors nowadays can offer students lengthy sessions – and many are so overloaded that they cannot personalize their advice very much, either. That makes The Best 373 Colleges, 2011 Edition a very valuable research tool – at least a supplement to in-person counseling, and at most a substitute for what no one in a student’s high school is able to provide.

     The comments by each college’s students can give real insight into what a school is like. You will fit right in “if you’re a liberal, artsy, indie loner who likes to throw around the phrase ‘heteronormative white privilege,’” says an Oberlin College attendee. “Swordfights in dorm courtyards are not uncommon,” observes a student at Harvey Mudd College. “The typical student here [at Skidmore College] seems to be the atypical student elsewhere: super-liberal and socially conscious, ‘creative’ or artsy, weirdly dressed,” runs another remark. At St. Bonaventure University, on the other hand, the typical student “is white and Catholic, with a desire to do well and succeed but a stronger desire to have fun while doing so.” Combining these comments with the many statistics – including the very useful “average cumulative indebtedness” – can go a long way toward helping a student choose schools at which he or she expects to fit in and do well.

     The Best 373 Colleges, 2011 Edition is certainly not perfect. The “373” number seems quite arbitrary – even more so when you read a list such as “Fire Safety Honor Roll” and discover that 11 of the 16 named schools do not appear in the book at all. And with so many statistics, some are bound to get messed up: Babson College is listed as having a student body that is 57% male and 45% female, which is quite a neat trick. But The Best 373 Colleges, 2011 Edition is not intended as the be-all and end-all of college research, and should not be approached on that basis. It is a guidebook, as useful for eliminating certain colleges from consideration as it is for helping students find ones they might never have thought of without this or that cross-reference. Ideally, it will supplement the work of a knowledgeable and involved guidance counselor; but even students who do not have someone like that to whom they can turn can rest assured that they can rely on the information here to help them make more-intelligent and better-informed college choices.

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