It’s a busy time of year for families. Getting the kids back to school and focusing on homework is a big challenge for any parent. And there is another group of parents who are struggling physically and emotionally. They are the parents of college-going students, many of whom will travel coast to coast and in between, trying to find a college that’s right for their son or daughter.
I’ve been through college hunting four times in my life, and I can attest to the fact that it’s a daunting task. Unless you’re lucky enough to have kids who know exactly where they want to go to college, you are or will be a road warrior. Most prospective students have multi-page college wish lists. They have an idea of the type of school they want to attend, but after a visit or two to campus, their thinking may change direction dramatically.
My search for the right colleges was easy in the case of three of our daughters. All had a major choice, and we focused on how to please the admissions committees of the chosen schools. The fourth girl had no idea where she wanted to go, but she had a list of 12 possible schools. Because of his uncertainty, we traveled to campuses in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. After all that mileage, she chose college in New York.
During our grueling trek through the Northeast, I asked her what criteria she used to choose potential schools. His two main sources of information were US News & World Report and the Barron Guide. I am mentioning these resources because of current news about how US News recently downgraded Columbia University, based on erroneous numbers provided by the school on, for example, its professors’ degrees and the heights of its classes. These reports have shed light on the world of publications that high school juniors and seniors use to select colleges.
There is no doubt that Columbia University is one of the best schools in the country. It offers a wide variety of programs and many of its graduates go on to distinguished careers. But Columbia falsified the numbers, and an alert faculty member brought that falsification to wider attention. This created a lot of negative publicity for the school which gained national attention. The underlying question is, how reliable are these sources as a guide for your child’s college choice?
According to Dr. Robert Scott, former president of Adelphi University, US News & World Report is one of the “salt shakers”. Scott thinks many colleges provide questionable data to US News and the resulting rankings are highly questionable. He goes so far as to say that some schools manipulate their numbers in hopes of rising in the rankings. Once a school on the list achieves a higher rating, it will market the news in hopes of attracting students who are highly dependent on those ratings.
Reed College, a reputable university in Oregon, took on US News in the 1990s, refusing to submit data to the magazine. It may have lost some potential students, but today its reputation is that of a stellar school.
Scott suggests that there are plenty of other reliable college guides out there that provide helpful information for aspiring applicants. He cites the Fiske Guide to Colleges as an example of a publication that shows students how their aspirations fit with particular schools. If you search the Internet, you will find several sources that detail college course offerings, safety, campus culture, and surrounding communities. Don’t pay too much attention to all student posts, as some are sour grapes due to poor test scores.
Choosing a college is a major decision for any family, especially considering the cost of higher education. Using as many sources of information as possible can be a bit confusing, but relying on one or two of the college guides can be a major mistake. Kudos to Scott for speaking out as an expert on this volatile topic.
Jerry Kremer was a member of the State Assembly for 23 years and chaired the Assembly Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now runs Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Any comments on this column? [email protected]