Who Decides What are the Best and Most Interesting Colleges?

students researching best colleges

I was recently working on a custom list of colleges and the client was “confused” as to why two colleges were on the list, McDaniel College and Valparaiso University. She couldn’t find them listed in her Fiske Guide and so had no idea why we had selected the colleges. My problem isn’t with the client wanting to know why the colleges were included on the custom list. My problem is the thinking that because the schools aren’t included in the Fiske Guide it means they aren’t worthy of consideration.
 
After all, the Guide states that the list is subjective. According to the introduction:

How do you single out “the best and most interesting” of the more than 2,200 four-year colleges in the United States? Obviously, many fine institutions are not included. Space limitations simply require that some hard decisions be made.

By the Numbers

This is why there are 31 private Fiske colleges that have a lower 5 year graduation rate than Valparaiso and 48 lower than McDaniel. I’m using the five year rate so that schools with large engineering programs aren’t penalized.
 
Now these two schools do have higher admission rates than the majority of the colleges on the Fiske list. There are only 15 that have rates higher than Valparaiso and 23 higher than McDaniel. But they are obviously not off the scale.
 
What about test scores? Valparaiso has a 29 75th percentile ACT score which ranks it higher than 82 other schools listed in Fiske. McDaniel had a 1250 75th% SAT score which is higher than 18 other Fiske schools. I don’t have complete GPA information for all of the schools but again, it doesn’t seem that McDaniel’s 3.4 and Valparaiso and 3.7 average GPAs would somehow exclude them from the list.
 
I can tell you that both McDaniel and Valparaiso have chapters of the national Phi Beta Kappa honor society. They both have relatively low average net prices with over 90% of freshman receiving institutional aid. This is one of the reasons why they ended up on the custom list I was creating. They also both offer full-ride/tuition scholarships.

It Really is Subjective

Ultimately, the “subjective” is really the only explanation as to why McDaniel isn’t on the list but the following are:

  • Whittier College
  • Albion College
  • College of Saint Benedict
  • Hiram College
  • Alfred University
  • Queens University

The same is true for Valparaiso and the following institutions:

  • Houghton College
  • Juniata College
  • Lake Forest College
  • University of Dayton
  • Washington & Jefferson
  • Florida Southern College
  • Gordon College
  • Birmingham Southern College
  • Austin College
  • Drew College

I think Fiske’s guide can be a great way to get more of a feel for a college because of its detailed descriptions. But the problem is that too many people use it, or other similar guides, as a final arbitrator of what schools even to consider. Yet, I suspect the same people who are only considering the schools on the Fiske list couldn’t tell you why McDaniel and Valparaiso aren’t included but the ones above are.

Where do you start?

I get it. There are over 1,500 colleges with 500 or more full-time undergraduates in the United States, you’ve got to start somewhere. And when faced with spending as much on a college education as you might spend on a house, you want to make sure you’re getting value for your money so it’s only natural to look at rankings.
 
But if affordability is a concern and you know that you aren’t going to rely exclusively on what’s printed in the various rankings and guides, why shouldn’t you start the college search based on price? The reality is that’s pretty much how most people start searching for any other major purchase in the their lives, houses, cars, furniture, even vacations. Why should paying for college be different?

 

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