September 30, 2021


The Best 387 Colleges, 2022—Special 30th Edition. By Robert Franek with David Soto, Stephen Koch, Aaron Riccio, Anna Goodlett, and the staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $24.99.

     Add to the list another of the countless depredations of the Pandemic Year of 2020 (not to be confused with the Pandemic Year of 2021). In fact, add 26 lists to an already over-long accumulation of things that have been messed up, spoiled, rearranged, altered in subtle and unsubtle ways, and generally turned on end by the massive realignment of society caused by COVID-19 and by the frequently confused and inept government responses to the disease. The long-running Princeton Review series of best-colleges books is changed by considerably more than one number in its 2022 edition (the 2021 edition included 386 colleges). And it is a fair bet that while the label Special 30th Edition may have been planned for some time, the nature of that special-ness could not have been anticipated.

     What happened to this edition is that some of the underlying basics of the book’s approach were yanked out from under it. These thick, well-researched books contain a certain amount of information gleaned fairly easily from data analysis, such as total number of students in a college, financial facts, application deadlines, selectivity, and so on. The books also give college admission offices a chance to do some self-promotion in sections called “The School Says” – again, not a difficult task. But what really sets these college guides apart from others, and what has made them so special and advantageous to families for three decades, is their inclusion of student comments, both positive and negative, on on-campus experiences. Those experiences can change from year to year, so having updates is important: students discuss everything from dorm life and meals to helpfulness and accessibility of professors – including whether teaching is even done by professors or is largely relegated to grad students.

     In 2020, all that information disappeared, simply because remote learning became the norm for so many colleges and universities and therefore for so many students who would otherwise have been surveyed about their on-campus experiences. However, the Princeton Review was certainly not going to let a little thing such as unavailability of some data derail its data-driven approach. So what we have in this Special 30th Edition is a pivot to a different form of data use, with some different emphases. Students and families are here given 26 so-called “Great Lists” of “schools that have consistently placed on our ‘Best Colleges’ ranking lists over the years in various high interest categories.” But this is more a nice-to-have than a need-to-have feature. The lists showing which schools consistently have “Great Professors” and “Great Professor Accessibility” can be useful for planning purposes – especially for readers who look at those two lists carefully and discover that only 11 schools appear on both of them. But the value of lists showing which schools consistently score well for “Most Beautiful Campus” and “Great College Newspaper” is at best questionable. The 26 “Great Lists” are essentially rewards for consistency, which is a notable quality for schools to have from a public-relations standpoint but not necessarily very germane to individual students’ and families’ search for the best school to attend right now.

     For those more-practical purposes, though, fear not: The Best 387 Colleges, 2022 is still packed with actionable information that students and families can use to match their specific concerns and interests to various schools that will score high on their personal compatibility index. One of the most-interesting small-type features for that purpose appears on the right-hand page of many (unfortunately not all) schools: lists of alternative schools that “Applicants Also Look At and Often Prefer” and, separately, “And Sometimes Prefer.” The reason this is so helpful is that a student who thinks a school looks good on the basis of the two-page outline in the book – and who wonders if there are similar colleges also worth exploring that might be even better (geographically, perhaps, or in terms of cost) – can use these two little sections to broaden his or her search quite easily.

     The issue with a college search, in general, is not broadening it but narrowing it – there are so many schools out there, with the 387 in this book representing only about 7% of the 5,000-plus schools of higher education in the United States. As always, most of the “narrowing” work falls onto students and families, with a book such as The Best 387 Colleges, 2022 being helpful if its criteria and its data sets are in line with what students and parents are seeking. Yet it is important to remember just how different the criteria for college attendance can be. For example, Brigham Young University in Utah is consistently given a high ranking in these books and is mentioned in particular for its business, finance and accounting departments, and for political science and government studies. But there is another Brigham Young University – in Rexburg, Idaho – that is well-regarded for its departments of humanities, business, and human development, but that does not appear in The Best 387 Colleges, 2022 at all. Why might students consider it? Apart from academic matters, there is the fact that this Brigham Young University accepts 97% of applicants – a fact that may loom large for highly stressed and uncertain students. The point is that The Best 387 Colleges, 2022 does the same fine job that these volumes have done for three decades, even though this year’s book was produced under more-difficult-than-usual circumstances and could not include some crucial material. But the word “best” is a subjective one, and that is something students and families should remember as they search for a school that will be the best for them, under their unique circumstances, in the current pandemic-shadowed world of higher education.

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