September 29, 2022


The Best 388 Colleges, 2023. By Robert Franek with David Soto, Stephen Koch, Aaron Riccio, Laura Rose, and the staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $24.99.

     The reliability is what is striking. Most families will use only a single edition of Princeton Review’s thick annual presentation of “best” colleges, or at most one edition per college-bound child; but year after year, decade after decade (three of those so far), these books retain a similarity of approach and style that keeps them useful through all sorts of societal ups and downs, all types of educational arguments and disputes, all forms of decision-making for parents and students alike.

     The number of “best” colleges keeps changing – the 2023 book includes 388, up one from 2022, which was up one from 2021, which was up one from 2020 – but the underlying, data-and-student-commentary approach remains consistent. So does the fact that these books analyze, discuss and present only about 7% of the 5,000-plus schools of higher education in the United States. So the whole notion of “best” becomes a matter of opinion – and a crucial one when it comes to student and family decision-making.

     Arguably, there is no “best” college for any student; there are multiple ones where a given student will do quite well. Also arguably, the weighting of these Princeton Review books toward high-end, familiar-name schools, although certainly not overdone, does a disservice to already-stressed students and families who would benefit from knowing that there are perfectly good schools out there that accept 99% to 100% of applicants (a recent U.S. News analysis found 31 with 100% acceptance rates and 20 more at 99%).

     Yet these “best college” volumes do a first-rate job, within their inherent limitations, of helping narrow down searches for people who agree with the selection of these 388 (this year) schools in the first place. Much of the most-helpful material here lies in the lists. For example, The Best 388 Colleges, 2023 includes “great schools” for 21 specific majors – and the lists are compiled with the care and thoughtfulness underlying all the data collection and presentation in these books: “We ask colleges to report not only which undergraduate majors they offer, but also which of their majors have the highest enrollment and the number of bachelor’s degrees each school awarded in those areas.  …We also conduct our own research on college majors.” So student s who already know they want to focus on accounting, biology, engineering, environmental studies, marketing, political science or the other majors among these 21 can and should start with these lists and then turn to pages detailing specific colleges of possible interest.

     How to narrow down the possibilities further, or to start the process for people who are not yet certain what major interests them? One way may be by location: the book includes a state-by-state list of colleges. A few states have only one college appearing in the “best” list – Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, North Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming – but here the book offers a supplementary list that goes beyond those single-college states, in the form of 274 additional colleges (not appearing in the main portion of the book) “that we consider academically outstanding and well worth consideration” – and those are arranged by region as well as by individual state. So the “388” number of this year’s title is not an absolute, and neither is the state-by-state list.

     The book provides many ways to parse the data it presents. One interesting possibility is to search by tuition. That may be an unusual starting point, but it is an extremely helpful one as the cost of attending college continues to rise. There is a more-than-three-page list based on “tuition and required fees” but not including “room, board, transportation, or other expenses,” and it includes categories ranging from no tuition charge at all (nine schools) to tuition costs higher than $60,000/year. That is a huge and daunting range and a potentially excellent starting point for students and families concerned about mounting debt. To be sure, the listing does not and cannot account for political machinations on this topic: a recent decision to forgive $10,000 to $20,000 of debt for students who already finished college offered nothing to those who saved, worked and made sacrifices to pay off their debt – and nothing to those not yet attending college and needing to take on debt to do so. But just as the COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges in using these books for the last two years, so the unsettled financial landscape creates some new ones for the 2023 edition.

     The Best 388 Colleges, 2023 cannot take all the guesswork and pressure out of a college search; nothing, no one, can do that. But like its predecessor volumes, this latest one is an excellent starting point for students and families trying to get a handle on what sorts of schools are out there, how their current and former students feel about them, what their academic and extracurricular circumstances are like, what financial requirements they have, and more. There are many, many fine colleges that are not counted in these 388 (or these 388 + 274 additional ones); but certainly this book is a first-rate starting point for understanding the expectations of the colleges that it does include. It offers a cogent and reasonably objective, data-driven approach to deciding whether these 388 “best” colleges include one – or several – that have the potential to be “best” for any particular student.

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