A Surprisingly Useful College Guide

As the parent of a high school junior, I am about to enter the world of SATs and college applications. So when I was asked to review the book Choosing the Right College, a new book from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, I was eager to learn about prospective schools for my son.  My first impression, however, was that the book wasn’t going to be helpful to me. The book reviews only the nation’s most selective universities and liberal arts colleges, about 140 in total.  (That number does include other schools that have special emphases or missions).

Although my son is smart, he simply won’t qualify for these top schools.  He gets good grades and works hard, but he is not in the top of his class. Yet, even though I doubted the value of the book, I saw that it claimed to provide unbiased information from “inside” sources about academic, social, cultural and safety issues at each university it examined. So I decided to read further. 

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) is a nonprofit organization whose purpose (according to its website) is “to further in successive generations of college students a better understanding of the values and institutions that sustain a free and humane society.” The book contains two informative forewords by Walter E. Williams and Thomas E. Woods Jr.     

One of the book’s main points is to stress the value of a liberal arts education, and especially the importance of a solid core curriculum.

A liberal arts education? Core curriculum? These concepts aren’t entirely new to me, as I work for the Pope Center. However, I come from a family of engineers and started in school as an engineer myself. My son wants to study aviation and engineering, so why in the world does he need courses in U.S. history, politics, Western religion, history, and philosophy? 

The authors answered that question. A major premise of this guide is that a university lacking a core curriculum is educationally deficient.  A traditional core curriculum provides students with access to “high culture,” an opportunity to move beyond the prevailing culture of the modern day. It helps students understand their place in the stream of history and to appreciate the importance of the works of the many writers and artists that came before them.  A core curriculum provides a student with the ability to learn from the best that history has to offer, and to use that knowledge to move beyond the ordinary experience of present-day society.   

This book helped me to realize that courses such as these are even more important for “techie” guys like my son, as it makes them well-rounded individuals and challenges them in areas outside of their comfort zone. Come to think of it, I took Shakespeare during my sophomore year of college, and it was more challenging to me than any calculus class I had ever taken!   

Choosing the Right College organizes its school reviews by region within the United States. For each school listed in the book, the reader gets a delightful short history lesson about how, and sometimes why, the school was founded. For example, I learned that Duke University traces its beginnings to Methodist and Quaker families in 1838, and that Hillsdale College in Michigan, founded in 1844, was the second American college founded to admit African-Americans and women. 

The section titled “Academic Life” goes into great detail about whether a core curriculum is available and even goes so far as to list which classes at the school best provide the core curriculum. We also get students’ opinions about the best teachers and how their overall experience at the school has been. At Davidson College, a math major observes, “Despite being a numbers guy, I have read Plato, Milton, Flaubert, Nietzsche and Hayek, to name a few.”

“Student Life” describes what it’s like to be a student at the school. It includes information such as a portrayal of the college town, what type of dorms are available, sports and extracurricular activities, and Greek life. Despite having lived in the town where Williams College is located—Williamstown, Massachusetts—I learned something new about it: the ivy growing on the university buildings was planted by every member of every graduating class since 1862! 

Each school receives a red, yellow, or green light for its state of political discourse, intellectual freedom, and free speech. For instance, Mount Holyoke College received a red light due to the extreme liberalism of the campus political climate. Washington University in St. Louis received a green light because, although the campus and student body “leans to the left,” political ideology typically does not intrude into the classroom.  The students are too focused on their academics and future careers. 

The reader is also given vital statistics for each school, which include facts like total enrollment, required SAT/ACT scores, tuition, student-faculty ratios, and the percentage of classes taught by graduate students instead of professors. 

The most valuable part of the book, from my perspective, is contained in the Appendix, an entire section devoted to which questions parents and students should ask when considering a college. These questions can be used while visiting any college, not just the ones listed in this book or on its website (CollegeGuide.org).  The questions are categorized in the same fashion as each school review; by Academic Life, Student Life, and Red, Green, or Yellow Light. Also, each question comes with an explanation as to why you should ask it, providing the prospective student or parent with a little “backbone” if the school administrator or tour guide prefers not to answer.

As expected, some of the key questions concerning Academic Life address the presence of a core curriculum. But they also cover issues such as how long it typically takes to graduate and how many classes are taught by teaching assistants instead of professors. Questions on Student Life are focused on campus safety and student housing. The Red, Green, and Yellow Light questions are somewhat controversial and bring up aspects of speech codes on campus and the political climate of the classroom and academic departments.   

To summarize, although my son will probably not attend any of the schools listed in Choosing the Right College, the book helped me know what to look for at the schools he is considering. I’m much more prepared to handle the campus visits and feel more knowledgeable about which college applications we should even bother to submit.  And much to his dismay, I will encourage my son to take courses in the core curriculum. Perhaps then he can enlighten me with his broader understanding of the great works of our past. 

I am certain that many other parents of prospective college students would benefit from Choosing the Right College as much as I did.