The Fiske Guide appears in a separate tab in the College Information section of the system, or by clicking on college names in the Guided Search.
Fiske ratings, overlap schools and strongest programs provide a perspective of the school from someone outside the institution. The Fiske Description is also a more subjective perspective of the school that contrasts with the facts and figures in the College Information submenu.
Fiske rating are available as search criteria in the Guided Search.
WHAT SCHOOLS ARE INCLUDED IN THE FISKE GUIDE?
How do you single out “the best and most interesting” of the more than 2,200 four-year colleges in the United States? Obviously, many fine institutions are not included. Space limitations simply require that some hard decisions be made. The selection was done with several broad principles in mind, beginning with academic quality. Depending on how you define the term, there are about 175 “selective” colleges and universities in the nation, and by and large these constitute the best institutions academically. All of these are included in the Fiske Guide. In addition, an effort was made to achieve geographic diversity and a balance of public and private schools. Special efforts were made to include a good selection of four types of institutions that seem to be enjoying special popularity at present: engineering and technical schools, those with a religious emphasis, those with an environmental focus, and those located along the Sunbelt, where the cost of education is considerably less than at their Northern counterparts. Finally, in a few cases we exercised the journalist’s prerogative of writing about schools that are simply interesting.
The tiny College of the Atlantic, for example, would hardly qualify on the basis of a superior academic program or national significance, but it offers an unusual and fascinating brand of liberal arts within the context of environmental studies. Likewise, Deep Springs College, the only two-year school in the Fiske Guide, is a unique institution of intrinsic interest.
HOW IS THE FISKE GUIDE COMPILED?
Each college or university selected for inclusion in the Fiske Guide to Colleges was sent a questionnaire to be filled out and returned online. This questionnaire covered topics ranging from their perception of the institution’s mission to the demographics of the student body. Administrators were also asked to recruit a cross section of students to complete another electronic questionnaire with questions relating to what it is like to be a student at their particular college or university. The questions for students, all open-ended and requiring short essays as responses, covered a series of topics ranging from the accessibility of professors and the quality of housing and dining facilities to the type of nightlife and weekend entertainment available in the area. By and large, students responded enthusiastically to the challenge we offered them. The quality of the information in the write-ups is a tribute to their diligence and openness. American college students, we learned, are a candid lot. They are proud of their institutions, but also critical—in the positive sense of the word. Other sources of information were also employed. Administrators were invited to attach to their questionnaires any in-house research or other documents that would contribute to an understanding of the institution, and they were invited to comment on their write-up in the last edition. Also, staff members have visited many of the colleges, and in some cases, additional information was solicited through published materials, telephone interviews, and other contacts with students and administrators. The information from these various questionnaires was then incorporated into write-ups by staff members under the editorial direction of Edward B. Fiske, former education editor of the New York Times.
This is a judgment about the overall academic climate of the institution, including its reputation in the academic world, the quality of the faculty, the level of teaching and research, the academic ability of students, the quality of libraries and other facilities, and the level of academic seriousness among students and faculty members. Although the same basic criteria have been applied to all institutions, it should be evident that an outstanding small liberal arts college will by definition differ significantly from an outstanding major public university. No one would expect the former to have massive library facilities, but one would look for a high-quality faculty that combines research with a good deal of attention to the individual needs of students. Likewise, public universities, because of their implicit commitment to serving a broad cross section of society, might have a broader range of curriculum offerings but somewhat lower average SAT scores than a large private counterpart. Readers may find the ratings most useful when comparing colleges and universities of the same type. In general, an academics rating of three pens suggests that the institution is a solid one that easily meets the criteria for inclusion in a guide devoted to the top 10 percent of colleges and universities in the nation. An academics rating of four pens suggests that the institution is above average even by these standards and that it has some particularly distinguishing academic feature, such as especially rich course offerings or an especially serious academic atmosphere. A rating of five pens for academics indicates that the college or university is among the handful of top institutions of its type in the nation on a broad variety of criteria. Those in the private sector will normally attract students with combined SAT scores of at least 1300 on Critical Reading and Math, and those in the public sector are invariably magnets for the top students in their states. All can be assumed to have outstanding faculties and other academic resources. In response to the suggestion that the range of colleges within a single category has been too broad, we have introduced some half-steps into the ratings.
This is primarily a judgment about the amount of social life that is readily available. A rating of three telephones suggests a typical college social life, while four telephones means that students devote an above-average amount of time to socializing. It can be assumed that a college with a rating of five is something of a party school, which may or may not detract from the academic quality. Colleges with a rating below three have some impediment to a strong social life, such as geographic isolation, a high percentage of commuting students, or a disproportionate number of nerds who never leave the library. Once again, the reason should be evident from the write-up.
Quality of Life
This category grew out of the fact that schools with good academic credentials and plenty of social life may not, for one reason or another, be particularly wholesome places to spend four years. The term “quality of life” is one that has gained currency in social science circles, and, in most cases, the rating for a particular college will be similar to the academic and/or social ratings. The reader, though, should be alert to exceptions to this pattern. A liberal arts college, for example, might attract bright students who study hard during the week and party hard on weekends, and thus earn high ratings for academics and social life. If the academic pressure is cut-throat rather than constructive, though, and the social system is manipulative of women, this college might get an apparently anomalous two stars for quality of life. By contrast, a small college with modest academic programs and relatively few organized social opportunities might have developed a strong sense of supportive community, have a beautiful campus, and be located near a wonderful city—and thus be rated four stars for quality of life. As in the other categories, the reason can be found in the essay to which the ratings point.
FISKE OVERLAP SCHOOLS
Most colleges and universities operate within fairly defined “niche markets.” That is, they compete for students against other institutions with whom they share important characteristics, such as academic quality, size, geographic location, and the overall tone and style of campus life. Not surprisingly, students who apply to College X also tend to apply to the other institutions in its particular niche. For example, “alternative” colleges such as Bard, Bennington, Hampshire, Marlboro, Oberlin, Reed, and Sarah Lawrence share many common applications, as do those with an evangelical flavor, such as Calvin, Hope, and Wheaton (IL). As a service to readers, we ask each school to give us the names of the six colleges with which they share the most common applications, and these are listed in the “Overlaps” section at the end of each write-up. We encourage students who know they are interested in a particular institution to check out the schools with which it competes—and perhaps then check out the “overlaps of the overlaps.” This method of systematic browsing should yield a list of 15 or 20 schools that, based on the behavior of thousands of past applicants, would constitute a good starting point for the college search.