February 14, 2019


The Best Value Colleges, 2019 Edition: 200 Schools with Exceptional ROI for Your Tuition Investment. By Robert Franek with Danielle Correa, David Soto, Stephen Koch, and the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $22.99.

     Value is a slippery concept, more so when considered in the context of ROI (return on investment). After all, whenever someone buys a stock, anticipating that it will go up because the shares will in the future be worth more, someone else is selling that stock, anticipating that there is little, if any, upside potential. Each individual evaluates return on investment differently: the buyer expects ROI in the future sufficient to justify the risks inherent in any investment, while the seller believes the ROI already obtained is sufficient and a sale therefore makes sense.

     Increasingly, attendance at college is seen as primarily an economic decision: a college degree today, like a high-school degree in the not-so-distant past, is a requirement for the sorts of jobs to which a great many people aspire. Therefore, the notions of value and ROI have now taken on even more importance than they used to have, and the annual Princeton Review discussion of The Best Value Colleges now has a more-distinct financial foundation.

     One thing these annual guides show consistently is that when it comes to higher education, it is best to be very rich or at least moderately poor. That is not the intended lesson of this well-researched, plainly written book, which explores factors including academics, cost and financial aid, and which creates seven “value” lists sorting the 137 private and 63 public colleges it profiles. 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,” designed to bring in the best students without regard to their wealth (although often with regard to other factors, ranging from alumni connections to skin color).

     It is true that the ability of 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 on the other side of the wealth spectrum, families with considerable money can simply pay what it costs for their children to attend the schools – a $60,000-a-year “retail” cost may seem modest to them, especially in light of all the doors that a top-of-the-line college education can open. But left out of this rosy scenario is what happens to families that scrimp and save diligently for 18 years after a child is born, managing to scrape 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 top schools but do not qualify – because of income, assets or both – for the extremely generous subsidies that the highest-ranking 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.

     Nor will that group find much to celebrate in the 2019 edition of The Best Value Colleges. What all readers, at any income level, will find, however, is a well-thought-out data scrubbing and analysis that produces a list called “Top 50 Best Value Colleges” – on an overall basis, that is – plus six other lists, each containing 25 schools, that focus on specific perceived strengths. Four of those additional lists are straightforward, looking at colleges with the best alumni network, best entry to internships, best career placement, and best financial aid. The other two are more interesting. One gives the best 25 colleges “for students with no demonstrated need,” which means for ones who do not qualify for financial aid. This list interacts intriguingly with the 50-college master list: No. 1, Georgia Institute of Technology, is No. 18 on the main list; No. 2, Harvey Mudd College, is No. 6 on the main list; No. 4, Stanford University, is No. 2 on the main list; and so on. What this means is that schools’ rankings that include financial-aid elements may be higher or lower than their rankings when those elements are removed. Families trying to navigate the college-decision morass – a tough job in any year – may find this look at the data particularly interesting.

     The sixth “sub-list” of colleges is an oddity, because it is very highly subjective – even more so than is implied by the word “value.” This is a list of the 25 “best schools for making an impact,” and if “value” is an imprecise word, “impact” is even more so. Indeed, unlike the data-centric determinism of most of the material in The Best Value Colleges, this list is extremely personal, the schools having been “selected based on student ratings and responses to our survey questions covering community service opportunities at their school, student government, sustainability efforts, and on-campus student engagement.” Focusing intensely on the schools on this list may produce some distinctly odd thinking unless a high-school student already knows that he/she intends to go into nonprofit work, community activism, antipoverty programs, nongovernmental organizations seeking to aid the underprivileged worldwide, or similar areas. Students who actually grow and mature during college may be in for distinct disappointment if they choose an “impact” school and find, once arriving there, that the typically straitened political correctness of many of the listed colleges is intellectually (and perhaps morally) stifling. For example, the list is headed by Wesleyan University, once a top academic college (as part of the “Little Three,” with Amherst and Williams), but now referred to by some alumni – and not always with pride – as “social justice university.” Families would do well to use the “impact” list with considerable care.

     Of course, care is called for in all considerations and decisions involving college, and even the best-intentioned book on the topic – The Best Value Colleges is nothing if not well-intentioned – can provide only so much help. There is a tremendous amount of information on colleges available now, both in print and in voluminous online postings, including the ones created by the schools themselves. The lists in The Best Value Colleges, and the individual profiles of the schools on those lists, are valuable, but they are scarcely the last word in terms of decision-making. The first five schools on the master list of “best value colleges,” for example, are California Institute of Technology, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, and Williams. All are excellent. But so are No. 10 (University of Virginia), No. 14 (Columbia), No. 26 (Duke), No. 32 (Haverford), No. 47 (University of Florida), and No. 50 (Johns Hopkins) – and so are many schools not on this list. So much of what families will get out of The Best Value Colleges depends on what they bring to it: Wesleyan University heads the odd “impact” list, for instance, but does not appear on the master list at all, while Williams is in the top five in that list and Amherst is No. 17. The only sensible thing for families to do with The Best Value Colleges, 2019 Edition, is carefully to consider the methodology of The Princeton Review (which is not, by the way, affiliated with Princeton University), decide to what extent the book’s approach is in line with the family’s concerns and values, and then use the various lists and individual descriptions of colleges to focus on a small number of schools that will hopefully meet the soon-to-be-college-student’s goals and needs (financial and otherwise). The book is a start, and only a start. And families would do well to remember that there are many hundreds of colleges that are not profiled here at all – but that may nevertheless be the best value for them. It all comes down to just how “value” is defined, and that is something each family will need to determine on its own.

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