College guides can give a bum steer

Bradley J. Quin

April 22, 1991|By Bradley J. Quin

THE ACCEPTANCE (and rejection) letters are out, and for most college-bound students the deadline for the big decision is in about two weeks. Many frantically thumb through college guides, hoping that the same types of charts and appraisals used to select a new stereo can help them decide on a once-in-a-lifetime investment.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. Yet the American public persists in trying to reduce things to a quantifiable single-digit or simple paragraph. Because of this, an entire industry has developed that attempts to rate and evaluate colleges and universities.

The college guide business continues to grow, in part because we -- the colleges and admissions officers and the organizations that represent us -- have not done a very good job of countering the pronouncements of these self-appointed judges. Although in the National Association of College Admissions Counselors listed principles of good practice for publications evaluating colleges, publishers of guides have generally ignored them.

Because of changing demographics, it is easier than ever to get into most colleges, but the task of choosing the right college is far more difficult than it was a generation ago. Rivalry is intense among highly competitive institutions to attract the dwindling number of top students. The colleges, aided by a service that provides specialized mailing lists of prospective students, have responded by flooding family mailboxes with flashy literature. In these glitzy brochures, the colleges begin to look alike, though in fact they are as similar as apples and kumquats.

Enter the various college guides, which claim to have studied the institutions and to have separated the worthies from the worthless.

Of the three types of guides, the best (but also the dullest) are those that are as factual as possible. They provide easily verifiable and comparable numbers, list admissions requirements and maintain well-edited data bases. At Lafayette, scatter these books around the area where prospective students wait for interviews. Colleges welcome honest, straightforward comparisons on a level playing field.

A second group attempts to be interpretive. We hide these behind closed doors because they make judgments about us -- about others -- that we can neither understand nor explain. Rarely do they cite the sources of their information.

Last are the journalistic scoreboards, which use limited criteria to rank institutions in some order of alleged quality. These elicit the most negative reactions from admissions professionals. One list of the most selective colleges, for instance, is based solely on number of applications received, the percentage of applicants accepted and average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.

Included in these are the various "best buys" publications that pander to parents' sticker shock, presuming to compare value and price -- because, after all, a degree is a degree. Or is it? These publications also generally ignore the fact that financial aid can often bring the most expensive institution within range.

Such guides are more than unreliable. They can damage the educational experience of students. The journalistic guides depend heavily on received opinion about college reputation. Institutions traditionally ranked highly remain there, whether or not they belong there, supported by the American brand-name culture. Self-appointed evaluators assume certain qualities of the top" colleges, but fail to question if they are still delivering. But reputation alone says nothing about the appropriateness of a given college for a given student. It only tells you what's hot and what's not.

Unfortunately, an inverse relationship exists between the quality and appropriateness of the various types of guides and the public's interest in them. The subjective articles make livelier reading than the telephone book-like tomes of descriptive information. Judgmental guides take out of the student's decision equation the most essential element: What do I really need in a college?

College visits, talks with alumni and current students, comparisons of programs and other sources of information can better help a family decide what is right for a student than a quick ranking based on questionable information and judgment.

In the end, students and parents should trust their own instincts rather than simply relying on somebody else's predigested notion of what a college experience should be.

Bradley J. Quin is director of admissions at Lafayette College in 1/2 Easton, Pa.

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