Jul 28, 2009

Black Listed

In a carefully worded press release designed to generate sales of its latest college manual, the Princeton Review debuted the results yesterday of surveys conducted with 122,000 students attending schools designated the 371 best colleges in America. Within seconds, the Princeton Review website crashed or at least became inaccessible as thousands of interested parties raced to learn which schools earned distinctions on the 62 published ranking lists. I know this because I was simultaneously trying to verify information for yesterday’s post on salaries and could not for the life of me understand why the system kept denying access to last year's list of top party schools.

This morning, various news sources picked up the Princeton Review release and I can already see stories rolling out across the country as schools are asked to react to placement on such glamorous lists as “Happiest Students” or the less flattering “Dorms Like Dungeons.” Naturally I had to sneak a peak which necessitated opening yet another account in my cat’s name and thereby exposing my mailbox to waves of print material from various test prep sponsors and a few colleges paying to use the mailing list generated by those seeking to learn what 122,000 unscientifically polled undergraduates have to say about the institutions they attend. All I conclude is that it might be better not to be among the 371 best colleges in America than to appear on the “Least Beautiful Campus” or “Is This a Library?” lists.

While the Princeton Review press release gently tries to steer interest in their latest list of green rated schools and earnestly directs attention to the winners in such categories as “Best Financial Aid,” most press will inevitably flow toward schools listed as “Lots of Hard Liquor” and “Reefer Madness.” I’m not a particular fan because no one looks beyond the sensational headlines for methodology, and unattractive labels tend to stick. Pity the school described as “where fun goes to die” or the college where professors are described as inaccessible. While high school students might be intrigued by various party designations, parents view some of these lists in the way of cautionary tales—schools to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, the urban legends that spin-off from these stories tend to have a long half-life and reputations aren’t easily rehabilitated. Mention the University of West Virginia in this area and you’re guaranteed to get a response more in line with its party reputation than its standing among the few colleges offering petroleum engineering.

I suppose the moral of the story is that for some colleges, publicity—any publicity is welcome. For others, these kinds of rankings produce an ongoing headache of trying to explain the unscientific nature of the study or to laugh away a survey presumably conducted in the spirit of good fun. There will be colleges issuing press releases of their own in the next few days, while others will seek not to publicize less flattering standings. There will be those that try to capitalize on the survey while others will avoid the discussion entirely. You can tell a great deal about a school by how they spin the Princeton Review rankings.

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