Choosing the Right College

Record enrollments and more diploma depreciation on the way.

Colleges and universities across the United States prepare to assimilate the largest crop of freshmen ever. A poor economy, and a decades-long trend viewing a degree as a job-market prerequisite, will compel more than three-and-a-half million first-year students to enroll in institutions of higher learning during the 2011-2012 school year. Their retreat from an anemic economy into the expensive harbor of higher education may ultimately damage their personal economies. A freshman’s chances of accruing enormous debt are greater than his prospects for graduation or meaningful employment.

Just in time for the first day of classes, but too late for the application process, is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Choosing the Right College. The book is an essential guide to navigating the ever expanding labyrinth of U.S. colleges and universities. Published by ISI since 1998, the guide is as much a critique of higher education as it is of other college guides.

ISI points out that whereas the rankings of U.S. News and World Report emphasize administrator assessment of competing schools—essentially “a beauty contest”—Choosing the Right College utilizes John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University as a benchmark to evaluate educational quality. The guide notes, “we focus most critically on how well (or badly) a school does at providing the classic ‘liberal education’ suited to a free citizen and a well-rounded adult.” This translates into ISI determining whether the school offers serious honors programs, values freedom of speech, requires a core of foundational courses, eschews politicized classrooms, and emphasizes small seminars, among other criteria. Along with subjective on-campus assessments, the book offers hard numbers on professor-student ratios, retention rates, average student debt accumulated, applicant acceptance rates, and other relevant statistics.

ISI touts ten exceptional schools. Princeton’s 6-1 faculty-student ratio, tiny average debt load of $5,225 per student, and atmosphere relatively devoid of politicization scores the New Jersey Ivy high marks. Similarly, the University of Chicago’s “defiance of the national trend toward takeout-menu distributional requirements” and demanding curriculum won praise from ISI. Pepperdine University’s “three-course core sequence, Western Civilization,” which “takes students briskly from 30,000 B.C. up through the present” and Providence College’s “expansive, six- to seven-course Development of Western Civilization program” ground students in the culture. Other schools deemed “exceptional” by ISI include the University of the South, West Point, Baylor, Texas A&M, Gordon College, and Christendom College.

ISI’s “ten train wrecks” are just that. English majors at Wesleyan, Bard, and Amherst may earn degrees without reading Shakespeare. At Holy Cross, “Radicalism in America” satisfies the history requirement. UC-Santa Cruz’s “Criminal Queer,” Macalester College’s “Feminist Sex Wars,” and Wesleyan’s “Key Issues in Black Feminism” are among the courses ridiculed by Choosing the Right College. Outside of the classroom, students may encounter a “May Hole” at Seven Sisters’ Bryn Mawr, coed bathrooms and dorm rooms at Connecticut’s Wesleyan, and an Orwellian “Department of Multicultural Life,” which attempts to “infuse multiculturalism into all aspects of campus life” at Minnesota’s Macalester.

The predictable result of this is oversocialized but undereducated graduates. The politicization’s role in dumbing-down the curriculum is compounded by mission creep in any number of areas: bloated administrations diverting classroom funds, teachers who don’t teach, and student life choreographed as though a college were a cruise ship.

Maintaining an institution devoted to everything but liberal arts is an expensive endeavor. When ISI reports that cost-of-college inflation has outpaced actual inflation by a 4-1 ratio over the last quarter century, there isn’t surprise from anyone who has observed the constant construction, overstaffed libraries, manicured greens, and bizarre administrative sinecures on so many campuses. More tuition dollars, more alumni donations, and more financial aid are required to keep the cash flowing—thus greater enrollments.

As more high school students choose college, more colleges choose to become high schools. The democratization of higher education is not without cost. It harms students, many of whom, ill-equipped for college, throw money at a diploma that proves a mirage. It harms colleges, which necessarily weaken standards to advance students. As the late William Henry explained, “Ultimately it is the yearning to believe that anyone can be brought up to college level that has brought colleges down to everyone’s level.” The reductio ad absurdum of this phenomenon is the rise of gauche, for-profit, degree mills selling just a more brazen, and cheaper, version of the expensive credentialism that so many colleges and universities market. The laws of supply and demand affect diplomas as they do widgets, potatoes, and money: the more in circulation, the less they're worth.

The near-universal misconception of college as job training, as opposed to education for a citizen fit to govern both the democratic polity and his own leisure, may prove the pin that bursts the higher education bubble. Not only are the professions themselves better suited to train career aspirants, but the army of unemployed graduates suggests that students aren’t getting what they paid for. There may be one lesson that both dropouts and out-of-work graduates learned in school: Choosing the right college sometimes means choosing no college at all.

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of numerous books, including "Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America," forthcoming from ISI Books this fall. He writes a Monday column for and blogs at