Which college guides are best?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Oct. 4 2005 11:38 AM

The Old College Try

Which reference guides will help you find the right school?

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Depth:16 (out of 25)
Verve: 21 (out of 25)
Detail: 15 (out of 25)
Student Perspective: 24 (out of 25)
Total: 76 (out of 100)

Peterson's Four-Year Colleges 2006

Peterson's Four-Year Colleges 2006 by Thomson Peterson's, 3,087 pages, $32

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I have not used Peterson's before and am surprised by its structure. The front of the book has standard short descriptions with the usual data on each college, such as average SAT scores, major departments, sports, and activities. But the back of the book lists advertorials "written by admissions deans" in place of independent assessments. Perhaps these are helpful to some readers, but personally I feel duped buying a $32 book that seems to rely so heavily on subjective write-ups written by the universities themselves.

I found nothing inaccurate in the Peterson's advertorials, but I prefer to rely on more objective perspectives from outside observers.

Depth: 20
Verve: 19
Detail: 21
StudentPerspective: 17
Total: 77

The College Board College Handbook 2006

The College Board book gets major depth points for being the only guide to take community colleges seriously. It has data on more than 1,600 two-year schools, a great boon since nearly half of all U.S. undergraduates attend such colleges. Its four-year college outlines are fine, with lots of good data, but it misses some important details. Elon University, for instance, is unusual because it scores very high on the National Survey of Student Engagement—an increasingly influential measurement of which colleges teach best. But this guide does not address that. Like U.S. News and Barron's, The College Board contains all the standard numbers. But because it does not discuss details like which departments are strongest, or the differences in student interests and living styles, it's not easy to determine which school might be best for you or your child.

Depth: 24
Verve: 15
Detail: 23
Student Perspective: 18
Total: 80

U.S. News & World Report Ultimate College Guide 2005

Blessed with remarkable data from its "America's Best Colleges" surveys, the U.S. News guide helpfully ranks schools in different categories, such as the priciest private schools, the cheapest public universities, and the best values. The guide also addresses the important issue of how well colleges retain their freshmen, with a list that ranks schools accordingly.

The individual college descriptions, however, are a bit thin. The basic data on academic and financial aid are there, but U.S. News doesn't address issues that don't fit the standard categories. For instance, the guide does not mention Ursinus College's Common Intellectual Experience course, one of the few freshman courses in the country that every student is required to take. Elon's high marks on the National Survey of Student Engagement are also ignored.