College Rankings Explored and Explained: The Princeton Review

Jan 28, 2011 is cracking open the college rankings process in our three-part introductory guide to popular college lists. Welcome to part two: The Princeton Review.

princeton review

The Princeton Review

The Princeton Review publishes The Best 373 Colleges each year. This book profiles the 373 colleges and universities that the organization believes offer the highest quality academics in the country. (There are almost 3,000 officially recognized 4-year colleges and universities in America.)

The Princeton Review emphasizes the fact that it doesn't use a mathematical formula to determine which schools get included in the book. Instead, the organization combines data that its own researchers are continuously collecting from over 2,000 schools with feedback from students, parents, educators and college counselors. Key indicators include:

  • Academics
  • Admissions selectivity
  • Financial aid
  • Quality of life
  • 'Green-ness'
  • Fire safety
  • Composite test scores
  • Total enrollment

The magazine also guides its selections for the book based on a desire to include a diverse group of schools from all parts of the country, ranging from small, selective liberal arts schools to large, open-admission universities. And finally, colleges must allow the magazine's representatives to conduct candid students interviews in order to qualify for inclusion in the final list.

In fact, The Princeton Review places an unusually high emphasis on student feedback. In order to gain as much information as possible, the college evaluator is constantly performing surveys of students on hundreds of campuses - a process that has become much easier since the advent of the Internet. Students from the top 373 schools can submit one survey per year, and the organization solicits assistance (and permission) from college administrators in order to increase participation rates.

campus life

The student survey includes over 80 questions in four main sections, 'About Yourself,' 'School Academics/Administration,' 'Students' and 'Life at Your School.' Most questions are rated on a five-point scale, and this rating is then turned into a score for each school. These scores are the only factors that determine whether or not colleges make it into the ranking lists.

And here's where an important distinction emerges: The Best Colleges book is a rating system, not a ranking system. The colleges are not ranked against each other - either you're included in the publication or you're not, and those that make it in can be said to be 'rated' as a top college by The Princeton Review. However, there are 62 ranking lists within the book, and all of these lists are based on responses to the student survey. These rankings are separated into eight categories:

  • Academics and administration
  • Quality of life
  • Politics
  • Demographics
  • Social life
  • Extracurriculars
  • Parties
  • Schools by type

Not all of the best colleges make it onto one of the lists, and those that do are ranked against their peers in that category.

As a result of their dual systems, The Princeton Review's Best Colleges list is one of the most helpful publications out there for prospective students. It offers a lot of fine-grained information, much of which comes from the perspective of current students, who have the most to say about the quality and experience of campus life. However, U.S. News continues to be the standard bearer for academic reputation, a fact worth noting for students who have future plans that may depend on the reputation of their alma mater.

'Next: Newsweek'

'Previous: U.S. News & World Report

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