New York Times Guides To Colleges Awards Stars and Stirs
With the competition for students among the nation's 3,000 colleges and universities running at a fever pitch, The New York Times has recently jumped into the equally heated competition among college guidebooks--some say over its head.
Fresh off the press, The New York Times Selective Guide to Colleges, edited by the newspaper's education editor Edward B. Fiske, is a collection of essays that, like restaurant or hotel reviews, awards stars to each of the 265 institutions it examines. The maximum number a college can garner is 15, which are evenly distributed among three categories--academic strength, social life, and overall quality of student life.
The guide is a collection of essays pieced together by a staff of 20 editors and writers under the direction of Mr. Fiske and Shelly G. Burtt, associate editor. Based on questionnaires sent out to each institution's president, director of admissions, and director of institutional research, as well as 25 students, the essays rely heavily on the students' opinions and are written in a style that has been called entertaining, snappy, readable, and smart-alecky.
"It remains to be seen if this guide is going to take its place on the shelf with some of the more commonly used college information directories," says Frank Burtnett, who directs the professional development wing of the American Personnel and Guidance Association in Falls Church, Va. "We've got some old reliables in our business."
Variety of Directories
Just about every high-school guidance office, he says, has the latest Department of Labor Occupational Outlook Handbook in addition to the guides published by Barron, Lovejoy, and Peterson, and some smaller specialized directories issued by a variety of trade and professional associations.
But a "People magazine or National Enquirer approach to choosing a college, if priced and promoted right, could go directly past the schools, onto the bookshelves in the corner drugstores, and get to the students that way," says Mr. Burtnett. "If it's controversial, it'll probably be popular and become something counselors will know about."
For the most part, he explains, "counselors tend to use guidebooks basically the way you'd use The Yellow Pages, or any other reference tool. [The Times guide] is different from the usual resources counselors use, which are relatively free of bias and tend not to editorialize about the institution."
He admits, however, that once a high-school student has narrowed the field down to a particular type of institution--an Ivy League school, an all-women's college, or an institution with a particular religious affiliation, for example--the actual choice may center on particulars such as the campus social scene, athletic opportunities, or the type of student who generally enrolls there.
Concerns not Addressed
These are concerns that most other guides do not address effectively, according to the preface of the Times' guide.
"Like finding the right husband or wife," it reads, "college admissions is a matching process. You know your own interests and needs; the guide will tell you something about those that each college seems to serve best."
The major drawback to any guidebook, notes Mr. Burtnett, is that the information in it may not be completely up-to-date. Like a five-star restaurant that loses its head chef shortly after the rating is published, a college's categorization, for good or ill, will linger on regardless of change, he cautions."The ink's going to stay on the page until the book is lost, burned, or replaced."
And, according to its public information officer, that's exactly what happened to Barat College, a tiny private school that Mr. Fiske put at the very bottom of his list. The all-women's college in Lake Forest, Ill. was awarded two stars for academic quality, one for social life, and two for overall quality of life. Except in a student's major field, "requirements are non-existent," says the guide.
However, Beth Lucas, director of public relations at Barat College, points out that the guide discusses a problem the college had "several years ago" over dorm rules, which she says has been resolved. The book, she says, also fails to mention a new "dynamic curriculum" that the school has developed to keep up with the "changing times." "Obviously," Ms. Lucas asserts, "the information in the Selective Guide to Colleges by Mr. Fiske is outdated."
Officials at the University of Rhode Island are outraged at the guide's description of their institution as a "high school after high school." The essay is so vague and so general, says William R. Ferrante, vice-president for academic affairs, "yet there is clearly a negative tone about it, a depreciatory tone. It's smart-alecky, which I think detracts from its usefulness."
"I would say readable would be a better adjective," contends Mr. Fiske, principal author of the guide. "I think we've come up with a book which has solid information that has been gathered and organized in a systematic way. Within that format, we tried to make it as readable and occasionally humorous as possible."
The book, he asserts, has "some attraction just for simply browsing. Nobody is expected to sit down and read it cover-to-cover like a novel, but having it readable, light, and good-natured was one of our objectives."
The Rhode Island institution was given two stars on academics and the same for social atmosphere and quality of life. Its "nationally ranked" pharmacology school and "highly regarded" nutrition, nursing, and accounting programs were noted, as was its graduate school of oceanography, "perhaps best-known across the country."
But elsewhere, the guide tells of "happy-go-lucky parties, not-too-tough academic standards," and dormitories "of the modern, run-down variety" that have suffered greatly at the hands of "Rhode Island's many hard-core partiers."
"It is much easier to get accepted at Rhode Island than it is to register for courses once you are there. Registration is a fiasco," reads the guide, which concludes that "as long as you don't ask too much of uri, it won't ask too much of you."
uri students, while charging that the report is neither fair nor in-depth, have resigned themselves to the bad publicity, according to Lin Escalera, news editor of the student-run paper, A Good Five Cent Cigar. An article quoting student reaction was headlined, "Guide Prompts Feelings of Anger and Hopelessness," while another proclaimed "Guide Smears uri Reputation."
According to Ms. Escalera, uri. received favorable attention in a Barron's college guide that she had read when she chose to transfer from a South Carolina school. "I'm sure if I had read one similar to the one The New York Times had," she says, "I don't think I would have come here."
State Senator Edward C. Marth calls the book "a piece of trash" and is urging the university to investigate possible legal avenues against The Times.
"It's a difficult thing to sue a publisher, and it should be," says Senator Marth, who also serves as the executive secretary of the uri faculty union. "But at the same time, if a book is purported to be some sort of guide, there's an obligation to make a reasonable effort at least to have your information be factual and objective."
The information is not all "without foundation," he continues. "There are legitimate problems at the institution, but ... I don't think they're the kind that throw you from best to worst."
But according to Mr. Fiske, "There's nothing in that write-up about the University of Rhode Island that some student or administrator didn't tell us. I'm certainly not in a position to describe the social life at uri; somebody had to tell us. Every piece of information there came from somebody who's familiar with the place."
Just up the highway from uri, Brown University scored a major upset in the Ivy League division, tying for first place with Stanford as the nation's top private college. Brown's "new curriculum," picturesque Providence location, and proximity to Boston and Newport scored 14 stars out of a possible 15 (no institution received 15), snapping a traditional losing streak. "We have al-ways sat in the shadow of the big three," a Brown spokesman says, referring to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
In the public sector, the University of Virginia came in as "probably America's most elite" and "certainly one of its best," according to the book.
Mr. Fiske says his guide is "not a sociological study; it's a journalistic enterprise. What we're selling are accurate impressions of universities. They're not carved in stone, and we're not infallible. We are certainly open to learning more about them."
He says the book is to be published and updated for each academic year, with more colleges included in each new edition.
"It's like any story in The New York Times," he concludes. "You go around and ask a lot of people who know something about the subject--in this case, what a college or university is like--and you report what they say."
Mr. McQuaid, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was a contributor to the guidebook.