Aug 4, 2010

The Worst of the Best of Princeton Review

In a carefully worded press release, the Princeton Review debuted results yesterday of surveys conducted among 122,000 students attending 373 schools (up 2 from last year) designated the “best” colleges in America. By midmorning, the Princeton Review website crashed and became impossible to view as thousands of interested parties raced to learn which schools earned distinctions in 62 published categories.

And this is big news. While Princeton Review gently tries to steer interest in “Green Rated” schools and earnestly directs attention to the winners in “Best Financial Aid,” most press inevitably flows toward schools with “Lots of Hard Liquor” or “Reefer Madness.” And that’s what sells books.

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

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 its standing among the few colleges offering a petroleum engineering major.

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 as they 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, American University took first place in the “Most Politically Active” category and the University of Maryland won “Best Athletic Facilities.”

Best campus food may be found at Virginia Tech, James Madison University and the University of Richmond, while Sweet Briar and St. Mary’s College of Maryland received high rankings in the “Most Beautiful Campus” category.

DC stood tall among “Great College Towns” with George Washington, American, and Georgetown earning spots among the top 20. The most politically active campuses also included American, GW, and Georgetown, as well as George Mason and Hollins.

Happy students are found at William & Mary and St. Mary’s of Maryland, while dorms are like palaces at Loyola of Maryland and George Washington. Howard University ranked among colleges with the best college radio stations and best college newspapers—along with the University of Maryland.

The University of Virginia joined a number of Ivy League schools with “great financial aid.” And professors got high marks at Sweet Briar, Hampden-Sydney, the College of William & Mary, and Randolph College.

To view the complete list of rankings you might have to open an account and risk having an email box flooded with college spam. Or you can buy The Best 373 Colleges—2011 Edition from Princeton Review.

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