March 22, 2012


The Best Value Colleges, 2012 Edition: The 150 Best-Buy Schools and What It Takes to Get In. By Robert Franek, Laura Braswell, David Sollo, Seamus Mullarkey, and the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Random House. $21.99.

     It would be nice if there were a universally agreed-upon method of valuing a college education. For example, you could establish a baseline lifetime income for a high-school graduate with no college, then rank colleges based on how much money beyond that level their graduates, on average, earn – factoring in each college’s costs. If two colleges’ graduates earned, over a lifetime, three times as much as the high-school graduate, but College A cost less to attend than College B, then College A would be the better value, q.e.d.

     Unfortunately, no such method exists, and it is doubtful that one could ever be created, since so many values of a college education are unquantifiable. What about colleges that emphasize social cohesiveness and good works after graduation, whose graduates would likely earn less because they would go into nonprofit or low-paid work? What about non-economic values in general – how could anyone measure the way a college instills or reinforces them? What about the old idea, admittedly now archaic if not quite obsolete, that college should “complete” a person, turning him or her into a more fully aware human being? Is that in any way measurable?

     Well, the valuation task may be impossible, but that has not stopped The Princeton Review from attempting one. Its methodology may be arguable, and The Best Value Colleges, 2012 Edition should certainly not be the sole guiding force for families looking for the “right” college (there are in fact numerous “right” colleges for practically every student); but this book is a good place to start, or continue, a search for an optimal match of student with school. Because valuation of colleges is inherently subjective, the methodology here – which is “based on institutional data and student opinion surveys collected from 650 colleges and universities the company [Princeton Review] regards as the nation’s academically best undergraduate institutions” – is not necessarily the best possible, and in fact is not presented in detail; readers essentially have to take the book’s authors’ word that this is a suitable way to measure the relative value of colleges. Furthermore, one has to accept on faith that the 650 schools from which these 150 are selected are the only ones worthy of consideration – a somewhat dicey assumption, since there are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. None of this invalidates the information here, but all of it shows that this book is a resource for families and students, not the resource.

     So what does the book conclude? The top 10 private schools are Williams, Swarthmore, Princeton, Harvard, Rice, Pomona, Washington/St. Louis, Yale, California Institute of Technology, and Hamilton, in that order. The top 10 public schools are University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, New College of Florida, State University of New York at Binghamton, University of Wisconsin/Madison, College of William & Mary, University of Florida, University of Georgia, University of Washington, and University of Texas/Austin, again in that order. Some elements of these lists may surprise families that have begun a college search: CIT but not MIT; SUNY/Binghamton, but not other well-regarded campuses, such as SUNY/Buffalo; two Florida schools in the “public” list (the state is not generally considered especially strong in education). Other entries are no surprise, since they appear in just about every “best” list created by anyone; here the schools were chosen “based on 30 factors covering academics, costs, and financial aid.”

     The Best Value Colleges, 2012 Edition also lists 10 tuition-free schools: the five U.S. military academies plus Berea College, College of the Ozarks, Deep Springs College, Cooper Union and Webb Institute. These are scarcely practical for the vast majority of people: the schools get vast numbers of applicants and have very specific orientations. For example, Berea will not admit students whose parents can afford to send them elsewhere; Deep Springs has only 26 undergraduates; Webb is only for students of naval architecture and marine engineering, and has just 80 undergraduate students. Still, learning about these colleges is interesting, and they will clearly be right for some people. The same may be said about all the other schools here, with one important and rather troubling caveat. Although the private colleges generally cost well over $40,000 per year, they gain “best value” status in part because of their generosity with need-based financial aid. Indeed, one excellent element of the book is its listing of students’ average indebtedness at graduation. What is troubling is that all these schools make a major effort to admit students whose families cannot afford the cost of attending, by giving out many full scholarships. Of course, there are families at the other end of the income spectrum who presumably pay, and can afford to pay, the schools’ full costs. But what of the families in the middle? These schools tend to discriminate, however unintentionally, against families that manage to get by in life but that are neither wealthy enough to pay in full nor financially challenged enough to be entitled to strings-free assistance. Those are the families whose children emerge from college with huge debt burdens, or who cannot consider many of these schools at all because of the cost. The Best Value Colleges, 2012 Edition does not discuss this issue, which is a societal one rather than one for a guidebook. But a book called The Best Value Colleges for Those Who Are Neither Wealthy Nor Qualified for a Free Ride would really make a lot of sense.

     As for this book, it does show some signs of haste in assembly. For example, the state-by-state index shows both Wesleyan College (Georgia) and Wesleyan University (Connecticut) as being on page 356 (the latter is actually on page 358). And some text about the University of Virginia states, “Students on the stately and historic campus of the University of Virginia enjoy world-class academic runs about $10,500 for residents of Virginia…” These typos and editing errors are not major, but they may serve as a useful reminder of the inevitable imperfection of any guide to the “Best” this or “Best” that, colleges included. There is no perfect system for evaluating colleges and universities – ultimately, every family has to value them by deciding what its own values are and then spending the necessary time looking for schools that are as close to congruent with them as possible.

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