It's back to school time in the United States, and that means time for another edition of the Princeton Review's popular guide to America's best colleges. The 2003 edition includes profiles of 345 schools. But what attracts most attention are the yearly top twenty lists, ranking everything from the leading academic schools to the leading party schools.
They started classes celebrating this year at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The midwestern university was named the best overall academic experience for students by the Princeton Review's Best 345 Colleges guide.
Northwestern sophomore Ginny Gelms believes the rating is well deserved. "I think everybody agrees it couldn't be a more due accolade," she says. "The professors make themselves very available as resources for undergraduates. They're top people in their fields, and they know how to teach. And they also know what they're talking about."
They're not so jubilant at Indiana University in Bloomington. Student government vice president Judd Arnold describes campus reaction when that midwestern university was named top party school. "I would say shock," he says. "People cannot believe it in light of what's gone on in the past several years here. The administration has cracked down heavily on partying and alcohol use. And the general reaction is, if we're the number one party school in the country, that says something terrible about parties."
Judd Arnold questions the validity of the ratings, which are based on what a sampling of students say about their schools. But accurate or not, he admits that the Princeton Review attracts a huge amount of attention. As a student government officer, he's spent hours doing media interviews since Indiana won its dubious distinction.
Princeton Review editor Rob Franek notes the guidebook always draws strong reactions. "For those schools that are happy, they'll put quotes from the book on their letterhead," he said. "They'll certainly put it on their web site. They'll take it out on road to college fairs. For groups that turn up on lists that aren't so coveted, they tend to poke holes in the methodology that we have and try to quote other sources that they have."
Based on interviews with 100,000 college students, the Princeton Review includes 63 top twenty lists in all, covering everything from the teaching style of professors to the quality of campus food. Stanford University in California was named most selective American school this year, with an acceptance rate of 13 percent.
Hollins University in Virginia was said to have the best quality of life, winning praise for its safe campus, small classes and beautiful dormitories. But it's the two page profiles of each school that take up most space in the book. Rob Franek says they're aimed at helping students find the school that's right for them.
"We are in a great position to get out to each of these 345 schools and ask tough questions and report back on that information," he says. "We have a paper survey, which is a little over 70 questions, and then we also have large text fields, where students can comment about their experiences. We also have a mirror of that survey online."
According to Rob Franek, the character of most American colleges doesn't change dramatically from year to year, but the surveys do show changes in what students want in a school. He points to the growing popularity of urban universities.
This year, New York University topped the "Great College Towns" list. "Over the last 10 years, larger cities like New York City and Boston and Chicago have seen applications skyrocket, and students are very happy at those schools," said Mr. Franek. "I think some of the specific reasons are internships that students are offered outside the classroom, things they can do that enhance their learning experience."
Rob Franek also notes that many American colleges are getting more selective. But while some of the best known now admit fewer than 15 percent of all applicants, others in the book accept more than 90 percent. And with a total of more than 4,000 accredited colleges and universities in the United States, Rob Franek believes there's a school for every applicant somewhere, especially if they consider more than reputation. "I would always recommend taking a look at the academic curriculum at the campus, the size of the campus, the political bent," he said. "All of those things factor into the overall quality of life."
And how valuable is a guide like the Princeton Review in making the right choice? Ginny Gelms found it very useful. "Just the sheer number of universities is overwhelming, so it was a very helpful search tool to narrow down the pool of schools I could get into that also had programs that I would be interested in that would challenge me academically," she said.
Indiana University's Judd Arnold is more skeptical. "What we all talked about after we went to college was how the most accurate representations of colleges myself and most of my friends got were the colleges we went to for a weekend, stayed with a friend, stayed with somebody in the dorm," he said. And the people who went to a school based on the Princeton Review or U.S. News and Report said after a month or two, 'Wow,' I like it here, I don't like it here, but this isn't at all what I was expecting.'"
Rob Franek agrees there's no substitute for visiting a college. But in addition to helping students narrow down their choices, he believes a guide like the Princeton Review can play another important function.
"We've certainly seen schools make positive changes if they appear on some of our lists - that could be 'party school' lists, that could be 'class discussion is rare' lists," he says. "There are certainly good lists in this and lists schools don't appreciate being on. However, if they could be a calling card for schools to address some of these concerns from their student body, then I think we've done our job."
Rob Franek also says it's important to remember the title of the guide - the Princeton Review's Best 345 Colleges. Whether they're cited for lots of parties, lots of studying, or lots of liberals or conservatives on campus, he says every school listed in the guide is among the highest rated in the United States.