October 15, 2020


The Best 386 Colleges, 2021 Edition. By Robert Franek with David Soto, Stephen Koch, Aaron Riccio, and the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/PenguinRandomHouse. $24.99.

     The four most-dangerous words on Wall Street are said to be “this time it’s different,” showing the folly of trying to out-guess the stock market and investors as a group by intimating that the fundamentals of investing have been upended by some dire event or other (or even some positive event or other). It is tempting to apply the same thinking when it comes to higher education: every year is different in some ways, but thinking that the overall field and the criteria for judging individual colleges have fundamentally changed is a mistake. Yet this year is different for the long-running The Best 386 Colleges book from The Princeton Review, and not just because last year’s book contained 385 colleges. Nor does the difference lie in the sorts of everyday tweaks that are customary in any long-lasting project, such as the decision this year to create a new “best” category called “Best Counseling Services.” Two of the top five schools in that category are, unsurprisingly, special-purpose military academies: the U.S. Military Academy and U.S. Air Force Academy. But the other three – Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt University and Washington State University – may get extra attention from families this year because of what really is different: the COVID-19 pandemic.

     Among the many elements of everyday life upended by the pandemic is education, including college education; and the ways in which adjustments have or have not been made is not always obvious. For example, colleges do have overhead costs for maintenance of their campuses and to pay their staff (academic and non-academic alike), which means they have a strong financial incentive to bring students to campus – thus creating a conflict with the need to create the safest possible environment for education, which is quite obviously a distance-learning model. The result is a lot of hybrid education (some done at a distance, some in classrooms), combined with the now-standard precautions involving frequent cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces (and people!), social distancing, mask wearing, and the rest of pandemic-driven life. This is certainly a good year for The Princeton Review to create that “Best Counseling Services” category, since the psychological effects of the pandemic will likely be deeper and longer-lasting for many people than its physical effects.

     Yet even within this pandemic-tainted year, The Best 386 Colleges has managed to retain some stability of approach and presentation, and that is one area in which its value lies. What is different now is the way families are likely to handle the book’s information. Aside from giving weight to “Best Counseling Services” and the similar “Best Health Services” list (also featuring the U.S. Air Force Academy and U.S. Military Academy but in this case including Kansas State University, University of Utah and Rice University in the top five), families should look closely at categories such as “Best-Run Colleges” for a sense of which schools may be most able to adjust to pandemic-caused disruption (the top three in that category are Elon University, Vanderbilt University and Rice University). On the other hand, families may pay somewhat less attention to the “Best Classroom Experience” list (top three: Reed College, U.S. Military Academy, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering) at a time when classrooms are less central to the overall learning experience than they usually are. Similarly, “Best College Dorms” (top three: High Point University, Washington University in St. Louis, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering ) may be less important now than in the past. And in light of the significant spread of COVID-19 under circumstances that involve crowding, families may want to be extra-cautious about the top “Party Schools” (University of Alabama—Tuscaloosa, University of Delaware, Syracuse University) and ones where “Students Pack the Stadiums” (Arizona State University, Syracuse University, Auburn University).

     What is interesting about this, though, is that these changes in usage patterns are, foundationally, simply a revised instance of using The Best 386 Colleges as this book series has always been used. The “best” lists toward the front also include some “worst” lists: “Best Campus Food” is followed by “Is It Food?” and “Town-Gown Relations Are Great” by “Town-Gown Relations Are Strained.” And there are useful matter-of-opinion lists as well: “Most Conservative Students” and “Most Liberal Students,” “Most Religious Students” and “Least Religious Students,” and so forth. Every single list – as in previous years – serves as a starting point for families with their own hopes, worries, concerns and, yes, fears to use to explore individual schools in much greater detail in the two-page sections devoted to each one. Those pages are packed with information, as always, with everything from selectivity data to filing deadlines to financial facts and figures to the very helpful “applicants also look at and often prefer,” “and sometimes prefer,” “and rarely prefer” notes – giving families that may have heard of College X or may want to look at it for geographical reasons a cross-listing of others worth considering (or likely not worth considering). What The Best 386 Colleges does so well is to throw a lot of information, from numerical data to student opinions to comments by the colleges themselves, at prospective students and their families. There is so much here that the book can be overwhelming, but it is highly useful if the material is used as intended. The book does not point any individual student to any individual college; it never has. By intent, it is an unequaled starting point that families can use to explore a high-quality subset of the list of 5,000 or so U.S. colleges – getting plenty of information that will allow students and their families to narrow their search still further through that most time-honored approach, additional self-guided research. As it turns out, although “this time it’s different” in academia because of the depredations of the pandemic, it is reassuring to discover that thanks to the clarity and consistency of approach of The Best 386 Colleges, it is not in fact that different after all.

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