- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

About this time every year, high school seniors and their parents start trying to figure out how to choose a college.
With application deadlines for some colleges starting as early as this fall for students who want to begin college next fall, there is not a lot of time.
When you take into account the lead time needed to apply to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test or the American College Testing Program's exam — and then the time before the results are tabulated and sent out to the college admissions offices — there is not much time left, even for those students who are applying for colleges whose deadlines are next January or February.
Nevertheless, a hasty decision can have repercussions that last for years. Campus stresses can lead to psychiatric problems, drug dependency or even suicide. It happens from the Ivy League to Podunk U. One lovely young woman committed suicide by jumping from the building in which I had my office at UCLA, and I saw her body in the bushes on my way to work. Another whom I encountered had picked up a devastating drug habit at Harvard.
Much more is involved in choosing a college than whether they have prestigious professors or high SAT scores.
On some campuses, black students will live as segregated a life as in the days of the Jim Crow South and find other black students resenting them if they spend their time in the library or at the computer lab, instead of in racial breast-beating activities. But the atmosphere is very different on other campuses where students of all races can make education their top priority.
None of this is covered in the brightly colored brochures that the college admissions offices send you, and most college guides don't get down to this kind of nitty gritty. However, there is one college guide that does. It is titled "Choosing the Right College" and it has an introduction by William Bennett. The National Catholic Register calls it "a godsend for anyone who wants to know how to beat the academic establishment and actually get an education."
There are many colleges and universities where it is possible to get a fine education — but where you can also graduate without learning anything that you don't want to learn. You can get a degree from some of the most prestigious institutions in America without having a clue about science, history, math or economics because you take only the courses you want to take.
The latest edition of "Choosing the Right College" quotes a Harvard student: "You can get away without learning a scrap of European or U.S. history." It also quotes a Harvard professor who says that the core curriculum there "is absolutely onerous in its gobbling up of students' time in courses that often enough are weak fare." And for four years of this, you are paying over a hundred grand in tuition.
"Choosing the Right College" is not just about muckraking. It also tells you about colleges and universities that may not have big names, but which offer a finer education than some other places that are household words. For example, it calls Claremont McKenna College in Southern California "an excellent stomping ground for any student serious about his education." Of Rhodes College in Tennessee, it says: "Of the 110 institutions reported on in this guide, Rhodes is among the most distinctive and distinguished."
Institutions with strong educational traditions that are under siege from more ideologically faddish elements on campus are also covered — the University of Chicago, Davidson and Birmingham-Southern, for example. So are places like Reed College, where the radical fads prevail, as "politicization" has become "entrenched," and where the college is described as "a farm team for graduate schools."
"Choosing the Right College" does not rank institutions numerically, the way U.S. News & World Report does in its guide called "America's Best Colleges." That is part of the reason why "Choosing the Right College" is the best of the college guides and "America's Best Colleges" is the worst.
There is no such thing as the best college. The real question is whether a particular college is right for a particular individual. The more three-dimensional picture presented in "Choosing the Right College" helps parents and students to make the right choices for themselves, given the student's own abilities, interests and priorities.
If your local bookstore doesn't have this college guide, ask them to order it. It is well worth the effort.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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