September 12, 2019


The Best 385 Colleges, 2020 Edition. By Robert Franek with David Soto, Stephen Koch, Aaron Riccio, Brian Saladino, and the staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $24.99.

     “Best” is a matter of opinion, and if there is one thing the latest edition of The Best 385 Colleges offers, it is opinions: 140,000 of them from students. That is a significant increase from the 30,000 surveyed when this long-running series of books began in 1992. But the actual list of “best” colleges, although it has grown, has not expanded all that much: the 2020 book features 385, while the guide from a decade earlier (2010) included 371. Finding the “best” appears to be a slow-growth industry.

     Data aggregation and analysis, though, have grown vastly more quickly, and a good thing, too, since readers will have enough to handle in this oversize more-than-850-page book without trying to wade through the details of those 140,000 students’ opinions. The Princeton Review (which has nothing to do with Princeton University but bears a name that certainly does not hurt when families go looking for college-related information) does its usual excellent job of assembling information on each college in the book in accessible, easy-to-absorb form. The key, though, is not to look at each college: the 385 here make up less than 13% of the 3,000-or-so four-year U.S. colleges, but even families that want to focus only on the schools in this book would find it a daunting task to read about every one of them.

     So the way to use this volume is to make a plan. That’s right: before planning for college, make a plan for planning for college. The first thing is for prospective students to decide whether college is right for them at all. This is not a trivial question: despite the recent spate of politicians offering to undermine generations of hard-working students and college graduates who have struggled successfully to pay their student debt – by raising taxes to forgive the debts of those who have not paid them off – families need to consider the financial realities of college attendance as they currently exist. And students need to think through how much benefit, financial and otherwise, they will likely obtain from a college education. This is by no means obvious: 89% of members of Generation Z (ages 15-21) and 79% of young millennials (ages 22-28) have considered education that does not involve going to a four-year college right out of high school, according to a recent study by TD Ameritrade; and 49% of young millennials have concluded that their degree turned out to be very or somewhat unimportant to their current job.

     Of course, all this can change over time (and has, as polls and statistics do); but it still makes sense for families to begin by deciding whether the sorts of colleges examined in The Best 385 Colleges, 2020 Edition are ones the student really wants to attend. If the answer is yes, a good place to start is with the front-of-book alphabetical lists of schools that are particularly noteworthy for students interested in specific topics: communications, computer science, engineering, marketing and sales, nursing, etc. It is unreasonable to expect most not-yet-college students to know what major they want, but by late in high school, most should know whether they have an interest in, say, criminology or environmental studies (two of the lists here) – and they can go through both lists if they have an interest in both fields. This helps narrow down the 385 schools in the book considerably.

     Also very helpful here are the marginal elements on all pages. The layout focuses on what the book’s editors believe will interest most prospective students: academics, student life, financial-aid issues, actual admissions-office comments, and so forth. But it is in the margins, where the statistics have been massaged and processed, that much of the value of The Best 385 Colleges, 2020 Edition lies. This is where the hard data on financial matters may be found, where there is a breakdown of the student body by race for those who deem diversity important in choosing a school, where a profile of the latest freshman class (test scores and high-school rankings) is located – and where there is an exceptionally useful set of alternatives, pretty much buried in the onslaught of information. This may be the key to a particularly helpful way to use The Best 385 Colleges, 2020 Edition. The words are as follows: “Applicants Also Look At and Often Prefer [names of other colleges]…and Sometimes Prefer [names of other colleges]…and Rarely Prefer [names of other colleges].” This looks like throwaway information but is far from it: these “also look at” colleges can present students with a trail to follow if they start examining any college in this book but decide it seems not quite right (or decide it does seem right, but still want to know what somewhat similar schools are out there). A random example: The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, is a sort of student-power school that emphasizes diversity and letting students create their own educational approach. But what if that sounds pretty good on paper but a little lacking in, say, structure and the sorts of opportunities that come from a nuanced but guided curriculum? Well, “applicants also look at and often prefer Western Washington University, University of Washington, University of California—Santa Barbara, Washington State University, Portland State University.” But those are all West Coast schools – is there anything more or less analogous elsewhere? Continue to “sometimes prefer” and “rarely prefer” to find out. And then check any of the listed schools to find additional “also look at” options. The result of doing this is a kind of trail of academic breadcrumbs that families can follow without worrying that the guidance, like Hansel and Gretel’s, will disappear before it can be used.

     The ultimate point of The Best 385 Colleges, 2020 Edition is that the book cannot possibly indicate the best school for any particular individual or family – in fact, educational counselors who charge thousands of dollars for college guidance are often hard-pressed to pinpoint a single “best” choice. But the book’s well-laid-out, carefully structured presentation of information on these 385 schools offers parents and students alike an excellent starting point for a search that is (and should be) time-consuming, but that has no definitive outcome for any individual. The bottom line is that this book can help turn up a number of good possibilities for further exploration – and if it does not, there are always the other 87% of four-year U.S. colleges that families can consider.

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