During our family's search for the perfect college for Katie the high
school senior, I looked for the best qualities, and not the flaws, in each
school. This is typical of me. I was raised by a cheerful couple who did
not see much point in noting blemishes or fearing the worst. They passed
on a gene for optimism that leads me to assume, sometimes wrongly, that
the milk is not yet sour, the car still has plenty of gas and the Redskins
will turn their season around.
T. H. Carter, a very conscientious parent in the Maryland suburbs of
Washington, D.C., had a touch of that trusting outlook during his first
child's search for a college. But the experience turned out so badly--his
son transferred after just a year--that he vowed never to do it that way
So his daughter Sumi, a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in
Prince George's County, and he have adopted a different approach to the
college search and have found a number of useful sources of information,
including some intriguing if acerbic websites, that Pollyannas like me
would never consider. Call it the Pessimist's Paradigm. For those of you
who are still looking for a good school, or will be doing so eventually, I
want to share the Carters' view of the darker side of undergraduate
"In a very competitive market place," Carter says, "most colleges have
marketing specialists in their admissions department to sell their
schools. Every college wants to put its best face forward. So every glossy
college brochure looks wonderful. Autumn leaves. Smiling college students.
Classes outdoors under trees. U.S. News & World Report rankings. It is
He considers the U.S. News list "a beauty contest where only college
presidents vote." I would not go that far. The list measures some
objective criteria, but as my colleague Amy Argetsinger pointed out in a
story on Sept. 14, ratings by college administrators get the heaviest
weight in the U.S. News system, and college administrators who want to
rise in the ranking have taken to lobbying each other, even giving gifts,
in hopes of getting friendlier reviews when the U.S. News survey comes
"Even visiting a college or staying overnight can be deceptive," Carter
says. "The schools only use the most positive and most successful students
as campus guides, so their opinions are uniformly positive. The schools
put on the Ritz when prospective students are expected, upgrading the food
in the cafeteria, planting extra flowers, painting dorms and generally
I found some entertainingly candid campus tour guides when I
accompanied Katie to some colleges, and I don't think there is anything
wrong with tidying up for guests, but Carter's basic point is
irrefutable--this is big business and the colleges are no more likely to
advertise their problems than we here at The Post are likely to announce
on the front page how many factual, analytical and grammatical errors we
committed the previous day.
So how can we innocents keep from being fooled? The Carters recommend a
website called studentsreview.com, created by
MIT students and full of youthful insider advice. "It is a very
interesting site and has helped me in determining which school is best for
me," Sumi Carter says. "It has also helped me eliminate a couple of
schools that were on my list. It is very interesting to see what the
undergrad students think. I was considering Rensselaer [Polytechnic
Institute, in Troy, N.Y.], but after searching the site and looking at
comments I changed my mind and decided to look elsewhere."
The Carters emphasize that they are not looking just for problems, and
that they found many positive reviews on studentsreview.com. I tried it
and liked it, although some schools did not get enough reviews to allow
the reader to draw any valid conclusions. I checked out the small liberal
arts college at the top of my daughter's list and found two very short,
glowing student reviews and one longer and very negative one from a recent
graduate. The critic said he hated the political climate, but he seemed to
have remained there for several years for reasons he did not discuss.
Here are some other quick student comments found on the website: For
fun, I looked at schools that graduated recent U.S. presidents:
Whittier (Nixon) – The faculty is "friendly, helpful, encouraging,
challenging" but unless you have a car "don't even bother attending."
U.S. Naval Academy (Carter) – "A very cut and dry place. Either you
know your stuff or you do not."
Yale (the Bushs) – "A wonderful place" but "students tend to be nerds
and are often spending sunny days in the library."
Georgetown (Clinton) – The gym "is an eyesore" and being in the library
"is absolutely depressing" but "my peers are just as intelligent as my
The Carters are also big fans of the Princeton Review's annual college
guide, "The Best 345 Colleges" (2003) and its top-20 lists based on
student surveys that identify schools where "Professors Make Themselves
Scarce" (University of North Carolina-Greensboro got the booby prize in
that category) or "Long Lines and Red Tape" (University of
Massachusetts-Amherst scored highest.) Carter said he discovered, too
late, that the college his son escaped, which looked good on the U.S. News
list, was rated number two by Princeton Review in the "Least Happy
Students" category and number four in "Professors Suck All Life From
There are a few other guidebooks that report bad news, with helpful
details. I like the "Unofficial, Biased Insider's Guide to the 320 Most
Interesting Colleges," and not just because it is a product of Kaplan,
Inc., part of The Washington Post Co. that has employed me for 31 years.
Here, for instance, is what co-author Seppy Basili, Kaplan vice president
for learning and assessment, says in that guide about Rensselaer, the
school Sumi Carter removed from her list after checking with
"Brains and Greeks, no liberal arts, and there is a 3:1 male/female
ratio. Try dating a critical reactor (if you haven't already)."
Basili says one of the most important sources for his guide,
co-authored with Trent Anderson, are student newspapers. "They are
up-to-date and unfiltered by the college's public relations team," he
The Carters and I agree. Many of my relatives and friends, as well as
me, have worked on college papers. We were always eager to demonstrate our
courageous objectivity with stories about frequently absent faculty
members, cruel dormitory proctors and obfuscating university publicists.
T. H. Carter recommends stopping by the office of the campus newspaper if
a school is at or near the top of your list and "ask for the dirt--school
scandals, stories done on professors, campus crime, date rape, corruption
in the administration, misuse of student fees, campus controversies,
minority complaints against the school and administration, drug and
alcohol use and abuse, etc."
The Carters discovered many lesser known student websites that exist,
like underground newspapers of my college era, to make university
administrators miserable. T.H. Carter described them as usually "snide,
cynical, anarchic, uncensored, sophomoric, R-rated and generally
negative--as in warning fellow students away from a particular professor."
Some come under the name dailyjolt.com. There is one at
American University, benladner.com,
and one at Cornell, hunterrawlings.com, that the
Carters found useful. (The fashion seems to run toward naming such sites
after the university president.) The Carters also consulted thefire.org, featuring alleged campus free
speech violations exposed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in
Education, the subject of one of my recent
Every campus has its unhappy stories. There is no need to obsess over
them if, on balance, the school serves your needs more than any other
place on your list. Sumi Carter has the right attitude about looking for
the negative. She says it inspires more careful thinking about what makes
a good college. "Many of my friends simply want to go to a big school with
a reputation and ranking," she says. "However, they do not realize that a
name and some positive comments may cause them to live an unhappy college
Since this is still my column, I insist on ending with a positive note.
Despite her high standards, Sumi Carter found seven schools that, although
not perfect, she has enough confidence in to risk paying an application
fee. They are Vassar, Haverford, Williams, Susquehanna, University of
Maryland-Baltimore County, University of Pittsburgh and Johns Hopkins.
I am certain that many more colleges can survive close examination by
even the most diligent young Devil's Advocates. So go check out the
reports of evil campus cops and rancid dining hall butter and lumpy dorm
mattresses, but try to keep an eye open for a little good news, too.