March 14, 2013


The Best Value Colleges, 2013 Edition: The 150 Best-Buy Schools and What It Takes to Get In. By Robert Franek, Laura Braswell, David Soto, and the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Random House. $21.99.

     The lesson of Princeton Review’s annual The Best Value Colleges book is that it is better, when it comes to higher education, to be very rich or at least moderately poor. That is how you get the best possible education with the smallest impact on the rest of your life.  That is not the intended lesson of this well-researched, plainly written book, which explores factors including academics, cost and financial aid at 650 colleges and selects 150 among them as offering the best value.  But reading only a little bit between the lines of these nearly 500 pages makes it clear that colleges get to be among the best in part because of the generosity of their financial-aid packages – “need-blind admissions” and all that.  The ability to allow children from families of modest means, or even out-and-out poverty, to get a top-quality college education is a major accomplishment for many of these schools and a major strength of the higher-education system in the United States.  And of course, families with considerable wealth can simply pay what it costs for their children to attend the schools – a $60,000-a-year cost may seem modest to them, especially in light of all the doors that a top-of-the-line college education can open.

     Left out of all this – in the book and in society in general – is what happens to families that scrimp and save diligently for 18 years after a child is born, managing to piece together enough money to pay for the child’s college education at a modestly priced school, but not enough to afford one of the absolute top-tier ones.  These families are the forgotten middle, because they cannot pay retail prices for these schools but also do not qualify – because of income, assets or both – for the extremely generous subsidies that the top schools offer to people who have done a poor job, or none at all, of saving for college.  As in some of the nation’s most-expensive cities, the very rich can afford the cost of living and the poor are well subsidized so they too can live there, but the vast and struggling middle group gets no help and little attention, much less sympathy.

     Someone should write a book about the best colleges for the children of those families, but that book is not this one.  This is a book for families that want the best education their money can buy – or the best that other people’s money can buy for them. As such, The Best Value Colleges, 2013 Edition is a highly valuable resource, although it is primarily a quantitative one: it does include numerous comments from students on what they like about their schools, but those comments tend to become repetitious after a while, indicating only that top schools generally have pretty satisfied students attending and also require a considerable amount of hard work.  The old and admittedly now archaic (if not obsolete) idea that college should “complete” a person, turning him or her into a more fully aware human being, is missing here, being unmeasurable. But costs, SAT scores, academic rankings, lists of most-popular majors and special study options, numbers indicating selectivity – all those and more are here, page after page and school after school.

     The Princeton Review (which is not, by the way, affiliated with Princeton University) has this year anointed Swarthmore College as the No. 1 value among private colleges in the country, followed by Harvard, Williams, Princeton, Pomona, Yale, Rice, Hamilton, Claremont McKenna and Grinnell.  A typical comment in the book is this, about Pomona: “The financial aid program here is exceedingly generous and goes beyond just covering tuition, room and board, and fees, for which Pomona can and does meet, [sic] 100% of students’ demonstrated financial need.”  That “demonstrated financial need” phrase occurs again and again, in multiple guises – so families should be sure they can demonstrate financial need (don’t have jobs that are too good or do too well at saving or investing!) to take advantage of aid that, in Pomona’s case, more than covers the $56,000-a-year cost.  Or consider the top 10 public universities, if you qualify for aid or live in those schools’ states and therefore are eligible for the comparatively modest in-state tuition costs.  The University of Virginia is No. 1 for 2013, followed by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, New College of Florida, College of William and Mary (another Virginia school), UCLA, North Carolina State, University of Wisconsin-Madison, State University of New York at Binghamton, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and University of Georgia.  The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at these schools can be as much as $100,000 over four years, so some enterprising families may want to think about relocating if the parents’ work makes that possible – not that this book recommends that, but when it comes to college planning, anything creative is worth considering.  That includes thinking about the 10 tuition-free colleges discussed in this book: 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 28 undergraduates; Webb is only for students of naval architecture and marine engineering, and has just 81 undergraduate students.  Still, learning about these colleges is interesting, and they will clearly be right for some people.

     And that is ultimately the best takeaway from The Best Value Colleges, 2013 Edition.  Many of these colleges will be out of reach, academically or financially, for many families, but they do show a cross-section of the very best educational opportunities to be found in the United States.  Even families that cannot aspire to the schools in this book – because they have not enough money or have too much to get the colleges’ generous financial-aid packages – can find out here what makes these colleges so special, and can use that information to help track down other, more-affordable or otherwise more-practical colleges that will also provide an excellent education. The reality is that, a few years after college ends, the specific college that someone attended ceases to matter except at networking events or when the development office comes calling to seek large donations to fund those super-generous financial-aid packages. There are many, many places to get a good, even a top-notch, college education today; and in fact there is no real consensus about how to determine the lifetime value of attending college, and therefore how to figure out what “best value” really means.  So The Best Value Colleges, 2013 Edition represents only one approach to the whole college search – a very well researched one that is very well presented, to be sure, but still only one way to look at the subject.  Figuring out how your family wants to look at the issue is ultimately what matters. This book can help, but it cannot make that decision for you, any more than it can help you pick which specific one of these colleges it would be best to attend – if any.

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