Thomas Sowell

There is so much for high school seniors and their parents to know about colleges that they not only need to get a lot of information but also need to make sure it is the right kind of information.

A number of college guides have useful information but, unfortunately, the best-known and most pretentious of these guides -- "America's Best Colleges"-- is grossly misleading.

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There is no such thing as a "best" college, any more than there is any such thing as a "best" wife or a "best" husband. Who would be best for a particular person depends on that person.

Would we not consider it absurd if someone collected statistics on people and then used those statistics to rank individuals according to who would make the "best" wife or husband? Yet that is the approach "America's Best Colleges" is based on.

A college that would be best for a particular student could be a terrible place for that student's brother or sister. One of them might find West Point a great experience, while the other would fit in perfectly at Reed College-- and each might be miserable at the other institution.

Choosing the college that is right for a particular person is not about the rankings of institutions. It is about matching a student with an institution that can enable that person to flourish while there, and to graduate with an education that is a foundation for a fulfilling life in the years ahead.

Among the things you need to know about a particular college is whether it has a real curriculum or just a smorgasbord of courses, so that it is possible to graduate knowing nothing about history, economics or science, for example. Some of the most prestigious colleges in the country are places where you can graduate completely ignorant of such fundamental subjects.

What also matters is whether the intellectual atmosphere is one in which competing ideas are explored and debated, or one in which there is a prevailing orthodoxy of political correctness that a student can challenge only at the risk of being ridiculed by the professor, given a low grade or-- in some places-- suspended or expelled for violating a campus speech code by giving an honest opinion about things where an orthodoxy is imposed, such as issues involving "race, class and gender."

In short, what is important is not choosing the "best" college, according to some statistics that conceal the arbitrary choices behind the objective-looking numbers. What is important is choosing the right college for you.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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