What is a parent to do? There are a million college guides out there. How can we tell what school is right for our kid(s)? Most parents and students are concerned with things such as party culture, cost, programs, and prestige. For some students, though, a school’s friendliness to conservatism might be a primary consideration. For those folks, the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute has published its latest guide to colleges and universities.
We all know that college rankings are a scam. Publishers prey on families’ anxieties to offer a dog’s breakfast of ranking systems. Depending on how schools are evaluated, we can come up with wildly varying scales.
I can say this in full confidence, since my beloved Binghamton University usually comes out near the top. In the recent Kiplinger’s ranking, for instance, we came out 22nd among public universities, 16th for out-of-state students. That puts us far above bigger schools such as Colorado (90), Iowa (55), and Michigan State (40), Alabama (46), Texas A&M (35), and Illinois (26). More important, I’m pretty sure our never-defeated football team could utterly crush the squads from any of those other schools.
But what does that ranking mean? In the Kiplinger’s system, factors such as cost, average completion rate, average student debt load, and other financial factors dominate. Is that really what people care most about when it comes to picking an institution of higher education?
For students and families with more specific questions, everybody and their brother have published niche guides to colleges. For the young-earth creationists out there, Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis has maintained a handy guide to schools that will not challenge creationist faith.
At Heterodox Academy, Joshua Dunn has reviewed the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s guide to conservative colleges. As Dunn relates, ISI has been the voice of “movement” conservatism on America’s campuses for generations. For its college survey, ISI looked at 148 schools. As Dunn explains,
To measure the academic seriousness of an institution, ISI examined the faculty and course offerings in three departments, English, History, and Political Science. In English, it looked for that classes focusing on great authors in the western literary tradition but without an emphasis on trendy and politicized literary theories. “Avoid,” ISI urges, “classes that mention ‘race,’ ‘class,’ or ‘gender.’” In short, study Chaucer and Shakespeare but leave the “fecopoetics” and deconstructionism behind. History departments should require classes that cover more than post-1965 American protest movements. And Political Science departments should require courses in classical political philosophy and the U.S. Constitution. If a department’s course offerings are skewed toward “Marxist meta-analysis of postcolonial Asia,” students should look elsewhere.
The ISI guide gives schools a “green light,” “yellow light,” or “red light” rating. Many elite schools, such as Amherst, Duke, and Oberlin, are no-gos for conservative students. The ISI system, however, produces some surprises. Schools such as Wheaton College—one of the evangelical schools I’m writing about these days—come out with only a “yellow light” ranking, in spite of the fact that their faculty all agree to an evangelical statement of faith. On the other hand, riotously pluralist schools like my own beloved Binghamton University get a green light, in spite of the fact that we welcome many avowedly leftist professors to our campus.
What is a conservative student to do? I’m torn. On the one hand, I’m deeply sympathetic to all students—even conservative students—who are made to feel out-of-place or unwelcome in their schools. On the other hand, as I’ve argued in these pages and in my recent book about conservative activism in education, much of the conservative angst about the state of higher education is woefully misleading.
It can be very difficult to look past authoritative-sounding college guidebooks. What student does not want to go to a top-ranked school? But all students, whatever their ideological or religious backgrounds, should rely on more than a book to choose a college. Talk to people you know who have gone there. Visit the campus. Ask difficult questions of admissions officers. Read the student newspapers.
In the end, relying on a college guide to choose the best school is about as useful as relying on a sandwich guide to help you choose the best lunch.