A guide to the college guides Advice: A major industry has grown from the publication of guides to U.S. colleges and universities. But sometimes the information in the various books conflicts.

The Education Beat

September 25, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

The Sept. 25 Education Beat incorrectly reported that Barron's charges for entries in its college guidebook. We regret the error.

SEPTEMBER is the Month of College Guidebooks. Time and Newsweek this month have joined Money and U.S. News & World Report in offering cover-story ratings and advice on the habits and habitats of the nation's colleges and universities.

If we add the traditional guides -- Barron's, Peterson's, Lovejoy's and the like -- we have what has become a major industry. Why? Partly because Americans love rankings, and these guidebooks give us rankings on top of rankings. Never mind that many of them are based on popularity contests, anecdotal impressions and suspect data churned out by the schools' public relations departments.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Yet the rankings mean a good deal to the schools as they compete for students in an atmosphere that is hardly collegial. If a college moves up a few notches in the U.S. News rankings, it trumpets the achievement. If it drops a few notches, its officials grouse privately that the assessment was unfair. It's even more insulting to be ignored in this ratings game.

Meanwhile, the magazines and guidebooks are filling a void created by the colleges and universities themselves. There are no nationally accepted standards by which to judge the quality of higher education, so U.S. News has created them. Many of the schools don't want you to know how to negotiate a more lucrative financial aid package, so Newsweek gives you pointers.

Clearly, it's fair enough to assess the assessors. We're helped in this endeavor by several Maryland college admissions officials and by freshmen at the College of Wooster in Ohio, who rate the guidebooks each fall.

Category: Most useful if you're interested in liberal arts colleges with big endowments. U.S. News' America's Best Colleges. U.S. News was the first magazine to enter the ranking game a decade ago with what was a popularity contest -- a self-selective survey of college presidents. Today U.S. News combines the beauty contest with data on student-to-faculty ratios and the like. State universities and low-endowment schools such as Western Maryland College tend to be slighted.

Wooster freshmen have rated U.S. News first the past three years, followed by The Fiske Guide to Colleges and Peterson's ** Guide to Four-Year Colleges. The Making a Difference College Guide is 23rd and last. Do not think, however, that Peterson's and the other traditional guides publish purely objective information; the colleges pay for their entries.

Category: Most valuable guides if you don't take them too seriously (or look too closely at how the information was gathered): 1. Princeton Review: The 310 Best American Colleges. 2. Insiders Guide to Colleges (Yale Daily News). 3. Lisa Birnbach's New and Improved College Book.

Jim Antonio, dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Mary's College of Maryland, points out that the newest edition of the Princeton Review rates St. Mary's the seventh most popular "party school" in the nation. St. Mary's also is listed as one of the nation's "best buys" by Money magazine but criticized by U.S. News for raising tuition 32 percent over four years.

In sum: St. Mary's, a school without fraternities or sororities that's as quiet as a knitting circle most nights, is a party school, a great buy and a tuition gouger. Take your pick. Life is like that for college officials, who are spending as many as five hours a week filling out forms for the plethora of college guides.

Category: Best of the new entries: Newsweek over Time. Newsweek's package was produced in cooperation with the Kaplan test coaching firm. (Both are owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Robert Massa, dean of enrollment at the Johns Hopkins University, is philosophical about the guides. They can be useful, he says, if they're combined with other sources.

An increasingly popular source is the Internet. Last year, 5 percent of Wooster freshmen searched for colleges on the World Wide Web. This year, almost 18 percent did.

Massa notes that Web sites allow prospective students to circumvent the guidebooks and see what the colleges say about themselves. But they also allow searchers to visit the personal Web pages of students. Next to face-to-face conversation, that's probably the most valuable information available to a student searching for a college.

Massa says the world probably doesn't need more guidebooks. "There are so many," he says, "that people get information overload and find it difficult to process it all."

But the guides won't soon go away, he predicts.

"People are making money with them," he says, "and as long as that's the case they will be with us."

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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