Colleges and universities across the United States prepare to assimilate the largest crop of freshmen ever. A poor economy, and a decades-long trend viewing a degree as a job-market prerequisite, will compel more than three-and-a-half million first-year students to enroll in institutions of higher learning during the 2011-2012 school year. Their retreat from an anemic economy into the expensive harbor of higher education may ultimately damage their personal economies. A freshman’s chances of accruing enormous debt are greater than his prospects for graduation or meaningful employment.
Just in time for the first day of classes, but too late for the application process, is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Choosing the Right College. The book is an essential guide to navigating the ever expanding labyrinth of U.S. colleges and universities. Published by ISI since 1998, the guide is as much a critique of higher education as it is of other college guides.
ISI points out that whereas the rankings of U.S. News and World Report emphasize administrator assessment of competing schools—essentially “a beauty contest”—Choosing the Right College utilizes John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University as a benchmark to evaluate educational quality. The guide notes, “we focus most critically on how well (or badly) a school does at providing the classic ‘liberal education’ suited to a free citizen and a well-rounded adult.” This translates into ISI determining whether the school offers serious honors programs, values freedom of speech, requires a core of foundational courses, eschews politicized classrooms, and emphasizes small seminars, among other criteria. Along with subjective on-campus assessments, the book offers hard numbers on professor-student ratios, retention rates, average student debt accumulated, applicant acceptance rates, and other relevant statistics.
ISI touts ten exceptional schools. Princeton’s 6-1 faculty-student ratio, tiny average debt load of $5,225 per student, and atmosphere relatively devoid of politicization scores the New Jersey Ivy high marks. Similarly, the University of Chicago’s “defiance of the national trend toward takeout-menu distributional requirements” and demanding curriculum won praise from ISI. Pepperdine University’s “three-course core sequence, Western Civilization,” which “takes students briskly from 30,000 B.C. up through the present” and Providence College’s “expansive, six- to seven-course Development of Western Civilization program” ground students in the culture. Other schools deemed “exceptional” by ISI include the University of the South, West Point, Baylor, Texas A&M, Gordon College, and Christendom College.
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