Jerry Kremer

The dilemma of choosing a college


This is a busy time of year for families. Getting the children back to school and focused on homework is a big challenge for any parent. And there’s another group of parents who are physically and emotionally challenged. They are the parents of college-bound students, many of whom will be traveling from coast to coast and in between, trying to find a college that is suitable for their son or daughter.
I’ve experienced the college hunt four times in my life, and I can attest to the fact that it is a daunting task. Unless you are fortunate enough to have kids who know exactly where they want to go to college, you either are or will be a road warrior. Most future college students have higher-education wish lists that are pages long. They have some notion about what type of school they want to attend, but after one or two campus visits, their thinking may move dramatically in another direction.
My search for the right colleges was easy in the case of three of our daughters. All of them had one major choice, and we concentrated on how to please the admissions committees of those chosen schools. The fourth daughter had no idea where she wanted to go, but she had a list of 12 possible schools. Because of her uncertainty, we drove to campuses in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. After all that mileage, she chose a college in New York.
During our exhausting trek around the Northeast, I asked her what criteria she was using in picking potential schools. Her two major sources of information were U.S. News & World Report and the Barron’s guide. I mention these resources because of the current news about how U.S. News recently downgraded Columbia University, based on faulty numbers provided by the school on, for example, the degrees of its professors and the size of its classes. Those reports shined a spotlight on the world of publications that high school juniors and seniors use to select colleges.
There is no doubt that Columbia University is one of the top schools in the nation. It offers a wide variety of programs, and many of its graduates go on to distinguished careers. But Columbia fudged the numbers, and an alert faculty member brought that fudging to wider attention. That created a great deal of negative publicity for the school that got national attention. The underlying question is, how reliable are such sources as a guide to your child’s selection of a college?

According to Dr. Robert Scott, a past president of Adelphi University, U.S. News & World Report is one of the “shakers of salt.” Scott believes that many colleges provide questionable data to U.S. News, and that the rankings that emerge are highly questionable. He goes as far as to say that some schools manipulate their numbers in the hope of rising in the rankings. Once a school on the list gets a higher rating, it will market the news in the hope of attracting students who rely heavily on those ratings.
Reed College, a well-regarded college in Oregon, took on U.S. News in the 1990s, refusing to submit any data to the magazine. It no doubt lost some potential students, but today its reputation is that of a stellar school.
Scott suggests that there are many other reliable college guides that provide meaningful information for aspiring entrants. He cites the Fiske Guide to Colleges as one example of a publication that shows students how their aspirations fit with particular schools. If you search the internet, you will find multiple sources that detail colleges’ course offerings, safety, campus culture and surrounding communities. Don’t pay too much attention to all the student postings, because some are sour grapes due to bad test grades.
Choosing a college is a major decision for any family, especially given the cost of higher education. Using as many sources of information as possible may be a little confusing, but relying on one or two of the college guidebooks can prove to be a major mistake. Kudos to Scott for speaking out as an expert on this volatile subject.

Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column?