Aug 7, 2015

Princeton Review's Best Colleges 2016 hits newstands

Virginia Tech receives lots of love from Princeton Review

For almost a quarter of a century, Princeton Review has asked undergrads to evaluate their college experiences as part of larger project culminating in an annual guide to colleges. 

This year’s guide, The Best 380 Colleges 2016 Edition, hit newsstands this week and contains top-20 rankings based on student opinion in 62 different categories ranging from “Best Classroom Experience” to “Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking Vegetarians.”

And while Princeton Review earnestly tries to steer interest toward the Green Honor Roll and earnestly lauds the winners in Career Services”  or “Most Accessible Professors,” most press inevitably flows toward schools with “Lots of Hard Liquor” or “Reefer Madness” because that’s what sells books.

And pity the school described as “purgatory” or the college where professors are considered inaccessible. While high school students might gravitate toward the party school list, parents understandably take a dim view of winners in many high-profile categories.

Yet despite a bias toward the sensational, the Princeton Review survey of 136,000 students at the 380 colleges in the guide offers interesting insights into campus culture and programming.  And while rankings within individual categories may be of little relative value, few would disagree with entries on lists broadly describing undergrads as conservative or religious or supportive of intercollegiate sports.

"While our purpose is not to crown one college academically 'best' overall or to rank the schools 1 to 380 on any single topic, our lists provide direct student feedback on the schools' campus culture, program offerings and cost," said Robert Franek, Princeton Review's Senior VP-Publisher. “Our goal is to help applicants choose and get into their dream college—the college best for them."

But unfortunately, the urban legend spin-offs from these competitions tend to have a long half-life, and reputations aren’t easily rehabilitated.

Mention West Virginia University in this area and you’re guaranteed to get a response more in line with its party reputation than participation in the Academic Common Market or its standing among the few colleges offering the petroleum engineering major. And once again, WVU has taken up a position on Princeton Review's “Party School” list, with the University of Illinois Urban Champaign earning the top spot for 2016.

The moral of the story is that for some colleges, publicity—any publicity—is welcome. For others, these rankings produce an ongoing headache as administrators try to explain the unscientific nature of the study or to laugh away a survey presumably conducted in the spirit of good fun.

Among the more positive local outcomes, George Washington University took first place in the “Most Politically Active” category, while the U.S. Naval Academy topped the list for “Best Science Lab Facilities.” 

Loyola University Maryland (2), George Mason University (7) and the University of Richmond (12) were lauded for having the “Best Athletic Facilities,” while Loyola (4), George Washington (11), and Christopher Newport University (13) received top marks for “College Dorms.”

Once again, best campus food may be found at Virginia Tech (3) and James Madison University (6), which was also acknowledged in the “Best College Newspaper” category along with the University of Virginia and Howard University.

UVa was also singled out for having great financial aid, while the College of William and Mary was acknowledged for having “Students Most Engaged in Community Service” (9) and one of the best college libraries (17).

And the happiest students may be found at Virginia Tech (2), St. Mary’s College of Maryland (5), Washington College (16) and Loyola (17).

But of all the schools in the area, Virginia Tech received the most love from Princeton Review. For 2016, Tech earned top marks in seven different categories:  “Best-Run Colleges” (administration gets high marks), “Happiest Students” (2), “Best Campus Food” (3), “Best Quality of Life” (4), “Their Students Love These Colleges” (4), “Town-Gown Relations are Great” (4), and “Lots of Race/Class Interaction” (8).

To view the complete list of rankings, you will need to open an account and risk an email box flooded with college recruitment materials. Or you can buy The Best 380 Colleges 2016 Edition.

Disclosure: Nancy Griesemer is a member of the Princeton Review National College Counselor Advisory Board, 2015-16.

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