An Interview with Robert Franek, Author of The Best 376 Colleges
What is The Princeton Review and how long have you been doing this book?
The Princeton Review is an education services company headquartered in Framingham, MA with offices all over the country and abroad. Our company was founded in 1981 to help students prepare for the SAT. Now we are known for our test-prep courses for scores of tests, plus our books, website, tutoring and online programs. Over the years we have helped millions of students research, apply to, get in to, and pay for college and graduate school. The Princeton Review also owns the Penn Foster Education Group, a global leader in online career and vocational education headquartered in Scranton, PA.
We've published our annual "Best Colleges" book since 1992. The Best 376 Colleges is our 20th edition. One of more than 150 Princeton Review books published by Random House, this title is one of our most popular. What makes it different from all other college guides is that it's based on our college student survey which is the largest and longest ongoing survey of its kind: we ask college students to rate their schools and report on their experiences at them. We surveyed 122,000 students for this edition of the book. No other college guide has this much campus and student feedback about schools.
Why "376" colleges?
"Best 375 Colleges" might sound catchier. But The Princeton Review doesn't start from a catchy number, then add or subtract schools to fit it. The number is based on how many schools annually meet our criteria for "best."
How do you pick the colleges for the book?
First, we choose schools based on our analysis of their academics. We review data that we annually collect from about 2,000 schools via an administrator survey that has more than 80 questions. We also get reports from our staff across the country who visit hundreds of colleges a year, plus our 28-member National College Counselor Advisory Board (you'll find their names and affiliations listed in the book), and independent college counselors who give us valuable opinions and suggestions about schools for the book.
Second, we look at what students we've surveyed candidly tell us about their campus experiences. That matters a lot to us, as it would to applicants visiting a school and those that can't get to the campus for a visit. Any college we consider adding to the book must allow us to conduct surveys of its students.
Third, we work to keep a wide representation of colleges in the book by region, size, character and type. Only about 15% of the nation's 4-year colleges are in it.
Which college is best overall?
We don't think one school is best overall. We don't believe hierarchical ranking lists are useful, especially those that rank schools only for their academics. In fact, we think they are counterproductive, as every school under the #1 school must be considered "lesser" academically, down the line, and that's just not so.
All 376 schools in this book are academically outstanding: they all offer a great education. But they differ widely – as do the academically outstanding students who attend them. It's not hard to find an academically great school in this country. What's hard is finding the academically outstanding school that will be a best-fit school for you.
What are your ranking lists based on?
Our multiple rankings lists are based entirely on data we gather in our student surveys. We report 62 ranking lists – each naming the top 20 colleges (of the 376 in the book) in a specific category. We think our lists -- along with other info in the book's college profiles -- offer applicants and parents a broader base of input to find and successfully apply to the schools best for them than one hierarchical list based on one aspect of the college.
What's new in this year's edition of the book?
We added six schools to this edition: Five are in the U.S.A.: Champlain College (Burlington, VT), Christopher Newport University (Newport News, VA), Portland State University (Portland, OR), Roanoke College (Salem, VA), and the University of Houston (Houston, TX). One is in Ireland - National University of Ireland, Maynooth (Co. Kildare, IRE). This is the first time we have included a school outside North America in the book. We have had two Canadian colleges in it for many years: McGill University (Montreal) and the University of Toronto.
We also added a new ranking list category, "Best Health Services," which, to our knowledge, is the first list of its kind. It reports the 20 colleges at which students most highly rated their school's health center facilities and services.
Of course, all of the school data in the book is updated. We reach out directly to our contacts at the colleges to collect that info and we update all statistics in our school profiles every year. We also give every college the opportunity to review, fact check and report to us any incorrect information in their profile before our book goes to press.
What is the difference between the college rankings and the college ratings in your book?
That's a great question as people often confuse rankings (which are lists) with ratings (which are scores).
Our Princeton Review college rankings are lists of schools in 62 categories (in rank order: 1 to 20) based entirely on our surveys of students attending the schools in our annual "Best Colleges" book. The survey asks students to rate their own schools on dozens of topics and report on their campus experiences at them. Our ranking lists include "Professors Get High Marks," "Best Campus Food," and "Major Frat and Sorority Scene."
Our Princeton Review college ratings are scores on a scale of 60 to 99 that we tally for schools in up to eight categories that appear on college profiles on its site and college guidebooks. The ratings are based primarily on institutional data we collect from the schools' administrators. Our rating categories include Academics, Admissions Selectivity, Financial Aid, Fire Safety and Green.
What advice do you have for students applying to colleges this year, and for their parents?
We asked this question of last year's applicants and parents (nearly 12,000 people in all) who completed our 2011 "College Hopes and Worries Survey."
Their most common advice? Two words: "START EARLY." We saw this over and over in their comments. One parent noted," I wouldn't wish the last few weeks we've had on anyone." Another said, "Start the whole process a year earlier than you think you need to." One of our favorite tips from a student this year was, "Take a deep breath and let your parents help. They may actually know something."
We echo that wise advice. And with best wishes to this year's applicants and their savvy (if anxious) parents, we offer these additional tips:
1. Work hard to get good grades and good test scores. They are important both for getting in to colleges and getting financial aid from them. Take as many AP courses as you can. Admissions officers like to see you've taken challenging courses, plus high scores on AP exams can earn college credits, thus saving on tuition.
2. When winnowing your hit list of colleges, don't make the mistake of picking schools only by their academic reputations. Get information about the campus culture, the student body, the town, the majors offered.
3. Never cross a school off your list because of its sticker price. More than 70% of students get financial aid and with aid it can cost less to go to a private or expensive school than a public or inexpensive one.
1. Relax. There are hundreds of great colleges out there and the majority of students get into their first or second choice college. Be as supportive as you can of your child, and when it comes to dealing with the schools, let your child make the calls and write the letters, etc.
2. If you are hoping to get financial aid, learn all you can about the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) well before you begin filling it out, ideally months before. The FAFSA is a form all aid applicants must submit and your /your child's answers on it are used to determine your "EFC" (Estimated Family Contribution) – that's what the colleges will expect you "pay" out of the family coffer. Our annual book, Paying For College Without Going Broke, has detailed information on this and is the only annual guide that gives people line-by-line advice specifically on completing the upcoming year's FAFSA form.