College Rankings Book Review
College Rankings Exposed, by Paul Boyer
Hardcover - 235 pages (2003) Thomson Peterson's
The title of this book, College Rankings Exposed, and the cover, which shows a college grad being manipulated by a gigantic, unseen puppeteer, are provocative. Some people will buy this book expecting to find out about skullduggery in the college ranking process, and why the #23 university in the US News rankings should really be in the top 10. Those buyers will be disappointed. The title and cover are almost certainly an effort by the publisher to juice up an important but less exciting topic: how should a high school senior choose between the 4000+ institutions of higher learning in the U.S.
Boyer does little in the way of exposing the ranking process promoted by US News, although he does repeat the oft-espoused belief that the editors choose the ranking and weighting factors in a way that favor those schools which they attended. (Perhaps the editors believe those ARE the best schools; if Harvard, Yale, and Princeton aren't at the top, then something must be wrong with the ranking algorithm, right?) He does cite plenty of expert commentary on the impossibility of ranking educational institutions on a simple numeric scale; that's hardly breaking news, of course.
Once the obligatory rankings bashing is over, Boyer hits his stride. He spends most of the book talking about what families SHOULD consider when choosing a college. Reputation and prestige aren't important. Even strength of a particular program isn't on Boyer's radar screen, since careers and their requirements change too rapidly in the twenty-first century. Rather, he emphasizes choosing a college that will deliver an education with a strong liberal arts component, and will involve the student in the learning process both inside and outside the classroom.
According to Boyer, the five characteristics of quality most important to look for in a college are,
Naturally, you might think that every college embodies all of these characteristics... based on their viewbooks, at least. The challenge, according to Boyer, is to get past the viewbook photos of animated students and small study groups and find out what students REALLY experience. He spends much of the book reviewing these five characteristics in more detail, and provides some questions that families can ask. For instance, for the first characteristic, a commitment to general education, Boyer suggests some specifics to look for:
For each question, Boyer provides a more detailed explanation of what to look for and why he thinks it's important.
This isn't a comprehensive guide to finding a college - Boyer spends little or no time discussing the many aspects that usually go into developing a college list. Athletic considerations, urban vs. rural location, cost of attendance, etc. all play a role in the college selection process for most students. Boyer focuses primarily on academic and learning considerations as he tells families what to look for in a college. There isn't much information about specific colleges, either. While various schools are mentioned in the course of the text, often citing something the school does particularly well, there's no effort to organize these offhand comments into any kind of list that list-builders will find useful. These limitations, though, don't mean the book can't be a valuable aid in choosing a college.
This book should be read not just by those who put stock in college rankings, but by any student or parent perplexed by the multiplicity of choices involved in the college search process. The key to developing a college list is having useful criteria for adding or eliminating schools, and families should consider incorporating some or all of Boyer's criteria into their college search process.