Book Review: Smart Parents Guide To College

Smart Parents Guide to College: The 10 Most Important Factors for Students and Parents When Choosing a College, by Ernest L. Boyer and Paul Boyer

Paperback – 227 pages, Peterson’s Guides

The late Ernest Boyer was president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a legendary, nationally known expert on American education, particularly higher education. His son, Paul, is the co-author here and makes some very pertinent remarks about his father’s efforts to inform the public on educational issues.

The book’s subtitle refers to 10 important factors and they form the core of the book’s 10 chapters: Getting Ready for College; Clear Writing, Clear Thinking; A Curriculum with Coherence; Finding the Best Teachers; The Creative Classroom; Resources for Learning; Extending the Campus; College Life; Services for Students; and Measuring the Outcomes. According to the cover’s promotional copy, this book, “which involved a study of nearly 700 colleges, provides advice on how to evaluate schools, with specific examples of model programs on campuses nationwide, questions to ask, and things to look for as the all-important college selection process begins.”

Cynical readers may wonder how students and parents may get true answers to such questions as:

How well does the school help new students in the transition from high school to college?

Is the campus safe and caring and does it have a code of conduct that all students and faculty follow?

Is there active student participation through discussion groups , research, and off-campus study?

Are faculty members genuinely good teachers?

Does the school teach students the skills they will need, not just for their first job, but for a lifetime of careers and learning?

Taking the cynical approach myself, I have to ask, “Can I realistically expect any college admissions person or official to answer any of those questions in a less-than-positive manner?” For example, look at the second one. What college can claim that “all” students and faculty follow the school’s code of conduct? Likewise, would a college official ever say, “Well, it really isn’t safe here, but we have beefed up our security staff,” or “We’re not really all that caring”? In my view, these are rhetorical questions.

I prefer to hear the students speak for themselves. It’s fine to read books like this and arm yourself with the “right” questions to ask college administrators. However, ask these same questions to the students when you make your campus visits. Do a real-time, mini-focus-group experiment. Walk up to a group of three or so students on the quad. Tell them you’d appreciate their honest opinions. Then ask them, “Do you feel safe on this campus?” You’ll get an immediate and correct answer, even if there are no words spoken. Watch their faces. If they hesitate, or stammer, or beat around the bush, you’ll know that there may be a safety issue. However, if they respond in concert, something like, “Oh, yeah. I never feel threatened. I wish there was more action, if you want to know the truth,” or something similar, then you’ll know it’s okay. And so on for the other questions.

That’s not a criticism of books like this. The point here is to get as close as possible to The Truth about what life is really like on specific campuses around the nation. This is a fine book, but it seems much like some others out there in the greater realm of knowledge-about-college publications. My advice is to take the key questions it poses and take them directly to the students at whatever schools are on your candidate list. You can’t beat a reality road test.

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