The Princeton Review has published its latest list of “best value” colleges. This list sells nice glossy magazines, but provides precious little information to help consumers of higher education (i.e., high school juniors and seniors and their parents) figure out where they will bet the best educational deal.
Case in point: the top 10 “best value colleges” in the United States just happen to be some of the most selective colleges in the country. So this year perhaps 9,000 students (out of about 3 million) will become first year students at the top ten “best value colleges.” What about the rest of America?
More to the point, however, is the fact that Princeton Review’s ostensibly rigorous and objective criteria are based on averages and reported numbers, not on individual cases. While the aggregate numbers are interesting when comparing how different institutions manage themselves (how they construct a budget, how they distribute financial aid, the kinds of students who are most likely to receive grants as opposed to loans, etc.), these aggregate data are NOT helpful to individual students when selecting the college that will provide THAT INDIVIDUAL with the best value.
Buying a college education is not like buying a television set. It is relatively easy for Consumer Reports to test the picture quality, sound fidelity, ease of operation, and the repair histories of inanimate objects like television sets. But an education is highly dependent on the person seeking that education.
To take the television analogy one step further: Consumer Reports can tell you which television rates best on certain criteria. Princeton Review, however, is trying to tell you which channel will be best for you. But a guide cannot tell me which channel is best for me without knowing a whole heck of a lot about me: my preferences, my daily schedule, my ability to pay for premium or cut-rate cable packages, and other variables.
Even when it comes to “value,” a guide like Princeton Review is virtually worthless to the consumer, because colleges reward solid financial aid packages to different kinds of students for different reasons. The financial aid package you receives depends as much upon YOU (your abilities, qualities, interests, commitments) as it does upon the college to which you apply.
So if you want to buy the Princeton Review’s new book, please do so. The economy needs the boost from your spending. But don’t expect to become instantly informed about which college is the best for you. For that sort of information, you need to look elsewhere.
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