It begins in earnest when the viewbooks start to come in the mail. Mounds of them, innumerable quantities of them, each demanding to be read: Middlebury, Yale, Rice, Macalester, Brown, the University of Rochester, Upper Saginaw Creek Community College, St. Scholastica’s Reformatory for Insufferable Teenagers, and all the rest. By now they have begun to pile up all around the house, clogging every inch of living space with financial aid reports, student life portfolios, and glossy photographs of happy, well-groomed, racially diverse freshmen. Your head begins to fill with arcane academic facts, culled from the U.S. News rankings and the Princeton Review . How does Swarthmore compare to Harvey Mudd for alumni giving and student/faculty ratio? When are the due dates for the online FAFSA form and SAT II Chemistry test? Does Marilyn McGrath-Lewis, the Harvard dean of admissions, prefer coffee or tea at breakfast? All these answers are at your fingertips, ready to be summoned forth at a moment’s notice. Soon, the deluge begins to overwhelm your rational faculties, and you begin to think seriously about things like how various collegiate rear-window stickers will go with your minivan’s color scheme.
And that is just for the parents. For the teenager, it is worse. At this point, she has visited thirty-eight different campuses and has decided to apply to all of them. Their applications require her to do things like condense her life aspirations, hopes, and dreams into profound and grammatically spotless five-hundred-word essays, even though, as a teenager, she is not even able to decide what she will wear in the morning. The decisions to be made are astonishing. Should she list her fifth-place finish in the seventh-grade spelling bee under her "academic achievements"? Does Columbia or Duke have the better pre-med program? And which shade of collegiate blue will look best with her hair?
Being not many years removed from it myself, I well remember the heady mix of excitement, nervousness, and bewilderment that is the college-application process. It has spawned an entire industry that promises to act as a guide to the perplexed. In addition to the ubiquitous U.S. News rankings, there are guidebooks galore, such as Princeton Review’s Best 361 Colleges , the Fiske Guide to Colleges , The Insider’s Guide , the Students’ Guide , and so on. I spent last weekend plowing through many of them and ultimately came to the conclusion that, with few exceptions, they are severely inadequate.
Each book and ranking system is, by and large, little more than a condenser and distributor of conventional wisdom. The U.S. News rankings will tell you, for instance, that Ivy League schools have enviable academic reputations, enormous sums of money, and far more applicants than they know what to do with. But everyone knows that already, and nothing is said about whether or not their reputations are deserved. The Princeton Review and the like will give you a snapshot of student life and campus atmosphere, but in the end do little more than provide a slightly less-sanitized version of the official guidebooks and college websites. As a consequence, instead of helping parents and students make sense of the deluge of information, the guidebooks and rankings often simply pile on more.
And, what is worse, they do almost nothing to help students decide where they will receive the best education . Many guidebooks, in an effort to catch the attention of their teenage market, spend as much time (if not more) on frat life, the party scene, athletics, and so forth as they do on academics. Almost never do they attempt a serious analysis of a school’s curriculum and core requirements. Observations about academics, when they are made, are usually confined to statements about how "serious" and "studious" the students are¯which is no guide to the quality of education but simply an observation about how hard students work at their studies.
In the guidebooks’ defense, of course, one might observe that they do nothing more than reproduce the aimlessness of American higher education itself. Possibly we ought not to expect the Princeton Review to know anything substantive about college education when the Harvard faculty does not seem to know either. For years, it has been pointed out that the flip side to the ever-expanding pool of students eager to attend the Ivies and other prestigious colleges is the ever-growing realization that the colleges have no idea what they should learn once they get there.
Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, argues persuasively in his recent book Excellence Without a Soul that top-tier American universities are all too often devoid of anything resembling a guiding moral principle. The distinguished Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre agrees, writing in Commonweal that the modern university has become desperately fragmented and incoherent. Tom Wolfe’s novel I Am Charlotte Simmons says the same, while graphically underlining the hedonism and relativism that goes along with it. None of it, sadly, sounds very different from the scathing indictment written twenty years ago by Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago, in his The Closing of the American Mind . Perhaps we should not be surprised by the shallowness of the guidebook-and-rankings industry.
Indeed, the surprise comes when you find a good college guide, such as the new one from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute ¯ All-American Colleges: Top Schools for Conservatives, Old-Fashioned Liberals, and People of Faith . ISI has picked fifty colleges that still take seriously the ideal of the liberal arts education, by emphasizing character formation along with the Western philosophical and religious tradition. Without sacrificing on-the-ground research and detailed information, ISI evaluates each school primarily with reference to the education students receive there, instead of reputation, alumni-giving rank, or "student life."
The result is a somewhat unusual list of schools, only some of which achieve similar prominence in mainstream rankings and guidebooks. But that is to be expected¯given the aimlessness of mainstream universities, one would not expect otherwise. For parents and students who want to cut through the inchoate reams of information found elsewhere, it should be one of the first places to look.
The book is not without its shortcomings. The list of schools chosen is unconventional, and one might disagree with decisions like including Southern Virginia University (98 percent acceptance rate; coffee and tea are forbidden), while leaving out Notre Dame and Valparaiso. But by and large the choices are good and highlight underappreciated gems like Hillsdale, Wabash, the University of Dallas, and Sewanee.
There is, of course, the question of whether a young person should turn down admission offers from Yale or Harvard in favor of Hillsdale or Sewanee. The answer is probably no. Fair or not, the Ivies and their equivalents still give students a crucial leg up in our meritocratic society, and it is still more than possible to receive a real education there, rather than just a credential. ISI’s other guidebook, Choosing the Right College , focuses on such schools and shows how to get that education there. But, for students who want most to go to a school where the search for wisdom and not just knowledge is put first, All-American Colleges is the ideal guide.
Of course, there is still the matter of whether Duke or Columbia has a prettier shade of blue, and which college has the decal that will look best on the rear window of the family car. As well as the question of what to do with all of those viewbooks. I recommend a nice large bonfire.
Jordan Hylden, a junior fellow at First Things , is a 2006 recipient of the Simon Fellowship for Noble Purpose from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.