It's back to school time in the United States, and that means time for another edition of the Princeton Review's Guide to America's Best Colleges. This year's survey profiles 357 schools, offering information on academic programs, campus life and the personality of the student body. But it's the rankings that appear at the front of the book that usually capture the most media attention. The Review ranks the top 20 schools in more than 60 categories, ranging from the best overall academic experience to the top party school.
College-bound students who want demanding academics, eminent professors and highly motivated classmates might want to take a serious look at the University of Chicago. The Princeton Review has named it the best overall academic experience for undergraduates in its updated guide, called The Best 357 Colleges. University of Chicago Dean Michael Behnke cites several reasons for the ranking.
"Probably the most important is that almost all of our classes are small, faculty-led, discussion-based classes, where students are asked to defend their positions and develop analytical thinking skills," he explains.
And Dean Behnke calls the university's professors "giants in their fields."
"We're always very proud to point out that we've had more Nobel Prize winners associated with the university either as professors or students or researchers than any other university. But they're also very good teachers. It's an intellectual community," he adds.
But Michael Behnke also says that while the University of Chicago is an ideal school for some students, it isn't right for everyone. College applicants need to do a lot of research to find the place that suits them best. That's a central goal of the Princeton Review's annual guide, which draws on responses from more than 110,000 students to profile and rate the schools.
"There are lots of great schools out there that could be terrific fits for college-bound students," said editor Robert Franek. "And I hope these lists will guide them in a smart way to start their research."
The fact that the rankings are based on student responses can yield some surprising results. Harvard and Princeton Universities topped the recent US News and World Report college rankings, but didn't even make the Princeton Review's top 20 list of best academic experiences. As for the most selective school, this year the Review cited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) renowned for its science and engineering programs. That could be another indication that American college students are becoming more pragmatic-something editor Robert Franek says he found throughout the surveys.
"Students are participating in more experiential learning type programs, basically internships for lots of first year and sophomore students, sort of underscoring practical-based learning," he says.
Robert Franek says the Princeton Review also found college students more interested in presidential politics during this election year.
"Over 30 million students were between the ages of 18 and 30 during the last election, and many of those folks didn't vote," he notes. "What we're finding now is that there are grass roots campaigns going on on campus to promote the vote. And 57 percent of students in college are going to vote for John Kerry."
The Princeton Review lists colleges for students with strong views on both sides of the political spectrum. Warren Wilson College, in Asheville, North Carolina, topped the ranking of "Students Most Nostalgic for Bill Clinton," which is another way of saying schools with lots of Democrats. Billy Peard says the ranking is well deserved.
"In the year I've been at Warren Wilson, I've been extremely surprised at how few political conservatives there are on campus. We often joke that among 800 students there are maybe four or five registered Republicans," says Mr. Peard.
Billy Peard believes that has a lot to do with the personality of the school. Warren Wilson is known as an environmentally conscious place. The campus even has its own farm. And every student is required to hold a job.
"It gives them a certain understanding of the working world, a certain level of empathy," he adds. "Students are also required to do 100 hours of community service, so they're often working at homeless shelters, food banks and the like."
For students who prefer a mostly Republican environment, Texas A & M University, in College Station, Texas, was named the school most nostalgic for Ronald Reagan. This year that probably means the school most likely to support President George Bush.
"I think the political atmosphere stems from a lot of the conservative values the students and faculty hold," says Antoinette Rodriguez, a junior at Texas A & M. "You'll find most students have a really strong love for their God and country and family, very patriotic people. So I guess that ties into the Republican Party and the fact that they stay along the line of those conservative ideals."
Does the ranking also reflect the fact that President Bush is a Texan? Antoinette Rodriguez doesn't think so, citing the political leanings of another Texas school. "There's the University of Texas, which is a very liberal university. I don't think they would fall under that category of being supportive of Bush," she says.
Some Princeton Review rankings may not be welcomed by college administrators. This year the State University of New York at Albany was named America's Top Party School. It also ranked number one among schools where students spend the least time studying. But Robert Franek says it's important to put those dubious distinctions in perspective.
"The book is called The Best 357 Colleges in the country. We try to look at the top 12 or 13 percent of schools, and then say what are the best things about each of these schools," explains Mr. Franek.
Robert Franek says schools cited for lots of parties, bad food or uncomfortable dorms sometimes improve their policies or programs. He's seen colleges transform themselves in many ways since he joined the Princeton Review, which began publishing its college guide in 1992. He's also watched college applicants change.
"Kids are more nervous. They're certainly applying to more and more schools," he notes. "Ten years ago kids were applying to four to six schools at the most. Right now we've seen that nationally increase to nine to 11 schools. That is a huge jump."
But if students worry more about getting into college, Robert Franek says they're also becoming more careful about their choices, considering factors like Internet access and campus transportation, as well as academics. By asking the questions applicants might not think to ask, or be embarrassed to ask, Robert Franek hopes the Princeton Review's Best Colleges guide will help students make an informed choice. And if they pick a school they hadn't even heard of when they started their search, all the better.