The Best Value Colleges, 13th Edition (2020): 75 Schools That Give You the Most for Your Money. By Robert Franek, David Soto, Stephen Koch, and the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $12.99.
Well, let’s see. The previous edition of The Princeton Review’s always-valuable guide to ROI (return on investment) where college is concerned was called the 2019 edition, not the 12th. The new one is called the 13th, not the 2020 version (although that is what it is). The previous edition included 200 schools. The new one includes 75 – but an additional 125 are discussed online, and it costs nothing (except time) to gain access to the data on them. The prior edition was, typically for these books, something of a giant: a weighty paperback that could be awkward to carry and page through because of its sheer heft, but having an easy-to-use layout in which each school profiled received two facing pages with shaded far-left and far-right columns packed with data, and rest-of-page narratives on specific topics. The new edition costs less ($12.99 vs. $22.99), is considerably smaller, and is certainly easier to carry and thumb through, but now each school’s information is spread across four pages, and the layout is choppier than in the past and not as easy to use.
Year-over-year comparisons are largely irrelevant to families with college-bound students, though, since there will likely be only one specific year per student in which families need to consult books like this one. And the only thing that will matter in that year is how helpful the book is. So the good news, and it really is good, is that The Best Value Colleges remains as useful, well-thought-out and impressively data-driven as it has always been. 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. The Princeton Review tries to prevent its data from being solely a measure of financial success by including metrics relating to graduates’ identification of “high job meaning (i.e., feeling that their job makes the world a better place),” although this is necessarily a highly subjective matter. Nevertheless, it makes sense for the book to provide students who are so inclined with some information on schools they can attend where like-minded “make the world a better place” individuals are more often to be found.
By and large, however, what The Best Value Colleges does is provide financial data indicating the economic value of attending specific schools – and how some schools’ value, under this definition, compares with the economic value of attending different ones. The 75 schools in the book, or the 200 discussed when the online elements are included, are drawn from a group of 656 that already represent a small fraction of the 5,300 or so colleges and universities in the United States. Whatever the value of inclusion of exclusion – the book explains its methodology briefly – the fact is that any student who wants to attend college can find one that will accept him or her. Whether the post-graduation economic value of having attended schools not discussed in this book will be comparable to the post-graduation economic value of attending ones that are included is both unknowable and irrelevant: this book is for families that want a big dose of economic reality, served in this particular style, and that will therefore consider only the schools discussed here, at least as a starting point.
Colleges in this book get to be listed in high positions on the various lists based largely on the generosity of their financial-aid packages. Princeton University (with which The Princeton Review is not affiliated) tops the list of 75 because admitted students who qualify for financial aid get 100% scholarship grants – not loans. Note that this is for students who qualify for financial aid. Yes, the school provides them with an average grant of more than $51,000 for a single year of attendance, but how does a student qualify? Ah, that is where things get tricky. The highest-ranked colleges here have a strong focus on “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). 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. But 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? Those 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 grants and other subsidies that the highest-ranking schools offer to people who have done a poor job, or none at all, of saving for college. The situation is exacerbated by politicians who increasingly often seek to buy votes by promising that highly indebted students will get all they have borrowed forgiven, leaving students and families that save and sacrifice and manage to pay back their obligations in the “sucker” category.
The Best Value Colleges cannot remake the U.S. sociopolitical system, of course. And its rankings are careful to exclude matters relating to student loans, as opposed to outright grants. In addition to the primary list of 75 best-value colleges, there are six other lists here, each including 25 schools: best alumni network; best entry to internships; best career placement; best financial aid; best “for students with no demonstrated need,” which means those who do not qualify for financial aid; and best “for making an impact” – the most subjective of the lists, 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.” It is important to remember that even this list may have significant value for families in which a student has already expressed a strong interest in going into nonprofit work, community activism or similar areas.
For the much larger group of students seeking an education that will be a ticket to financial and material success, the various lists are an excellent place to start: they make it easy to turn to the alphabetically arranged pages for the various listed schools to explore them in greater depth. And the school-focused pages may encourage “shopping around” for similar schools based on the description of the pluses and minuses of each specific one (there are very few minuses anywhere). The “Career Information from PayScale.com” that appears in each school profile will be an immediate eye opener, showing not only each school’s ROI rating but also just how much the median starting and mid-career salaries of graduates tend to be. The final line of this particular element of the book gives “degrees awarded in STEM subjects” – since those fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are the ones in highest focus for so many students and families these days.
As with all books of lists, data and analysis, The Best Value Colleges is only a start, and should emphatically not be the basis for choosing a single school. The best thing to do with it is to 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). But before doing that, a family discussion of the word “value” is in order – because this book defines it in a particular way (or set of ways), and those may or may not be the same ones that individual students and families use. Only when you know what “value” signifies to you can you try to find a college match that will deliver value in a meaningful way.