The Fiske Guide Turns 30

It seems only yesterday that a few colleagues and I gathered every night in the back of the newsroom of New York Times, then on West 43rd Street, to create the first edition of the Fiske Guide to Colleges. It’s hard to believe that the appearance of the 2012 edition this month marks the 30th anniversary!

Today’s Fiske Guide is a lot different than the first edition. It’s a lot bigger – with write-ups of more than 300 of the “best and most interesting” colleges in the country. There is an electronic version, and, most exciting of all, there’s a new iPad app with lots of bells and whistles to streamline the college search process. Once you have identified schools that sound like a good bet, you can use the iPad version of the Fiske Guide to plan your college tour, email admissions departments directly, browse each college’s website and check out competing schools. Unfortunately, you still have to brew your own coffee.

And – get this – there’s even a complete new Mandarin edition for Chinese students who have set their sights on a U.S. college. It’s kind of fun seeing your name in Chinese characters (or at least I think that’s my name).

The first edition of the Fiske Guide, originally known as the New York Times Selective Guide to Colleges, was born in controversy. It turned out that American college administrators did not cotton to the idea of outside criticism. Nor did they like the our star system, modeled on those of restaurant critics, for academics, social life and quality of life. One particularly pugilistic president of a university in Boston even tried to round up some of his peers to hit me with a libel suit. They reportedly demurred, citing the existence of something called the First Amendment.

The Fiske Guide remains the best-selling and most respected of the college guides, and this success is not without a touch of irony. Thirty years ago the last of the baby-boomers were finishing up their college educations, and U.S. colleges, fearing empty seats in their classrooms, became super-aggressive about marketing. In retrospect their methods now seem quaint and harmless – glossy brochures, video tapes and phone banks run by ever so friendly current students – but the situation called for someone to come in on the side of the consumer and sort out fact from fiction. As a journalistic effort, the Fiske Guide did just that.

The irony is that colleges have now become even more aggressive in their marketing even though high school graduation rates remain close to their all-time high. The risks of empty seats arise more from economics than demographics. But the need for someone to come in on the side of the consumer remains the same. Thanks to the Internet, college-bound students and their parents are inundated with information from institutions that latch onto their names, and students are only a few clicks away from whatever information they may want about particular schools – often from current students. But colleges only post information that they want you to see, the various sources are often contradictory, and the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming. The Fiske Guide continues to serve the same basic purpose as it always did: cutting through the hype and providing authoritative information.

People often ask me how the content of the Fiske Guide has evolved over the years. The write-ups reflect changing attitudes toward the use of alcohol and campus security, and (presumably for competitive reasons) colleges have shown much more interest in the quality of the undergraduate experience. The latter can be seen not only in the proliferation of fitness centers and fancy student unions but in the growing availability of freshman seminar and senior capstone programs and living/learning communities. Schools now push undergraduate research, which was an oddity 30 years ago, and virtually all good schools have now figured out that their graduates will have to know something about other countries. Even Yale, where the prevailing attitude used to be that anyone with a chance to spend four years in New Haven would be crazy to spend a semester or two in some backwater like Paris or Bangkok, has come around.

One thing that has definitely not changed is the Fiske Guide focus on capturing the personality and institutional character of each of the schools we profile. The big editorial risk that we ran 30 years ago was that–once we had described the 17th small liberal arts college in Indiana where “the faculty often invite students to their homes for dinner”–the schools would begin to sound alike. But that turned out not to be a problem. All of the schools in the guide – even all those liberal arts colleges in Indiana that look alike on the surface – have their own distinctive institutional personalities. And that’s what we capture in the Fiske Guide even as we provide updated statistics and information about new facilities and programs.

U.S.colleges are fascinating places. They are full of diverse people doing lots of interesting things and contributing to institutional cultures that are as different as the students who choose to enroll. Reporting on them for the Fiske Guide continues to be a blast.

Edward Fiske

Edward B. Fiske, who writes the Fiske Guide to Colleges (Sourcebooks), is a former education editor of the New York Times.

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