At last -- a college guide as smart as the students

For Ted (Edward B.) Fiske, education editor of The New York Times and editor of its ''Selective Guide to Colleges,'' a five-star (* * * * * ) rating. He's done it; this is the best one of the lot.

There are a good many college guides that merely cite statistics and include as many of the 3,000 two- and four-year American colleges as they can fit between the covers of a thick book. And there are a few subjective appraisals of a select number of colleges.

But there has been a growing need, particularly now that colleges and universities are out wooing students, for a buyer's guide to the find-the-right-college market. Specifically needed was a guide to the relatively few selective colleges -- a guide that would combine the formal data about location, size, entrance requirements, and academic pressures with judgments about dating, dorm life, male-female relationships, and so forth.

With enormous thoroughness, Ted Fiske has drawn on present students and staff to answer long questionnaires, visited many a campus himself, sent others to visit, and painstakingly seen to it that each write-up, while fresh and pitched to the institution it's covering, nevertheless follows the same informational flow.

You're interested in art history, and you've narrowed your choices to about 10 institutions. Chances are that most of them will be selective, and hence be among the 265 described in this guide.

Of course, the guide doesn't replace the campus visit -- not entirely, that is. But it would let the prospective high schooler know whether a campus visit was worth the effort.

We asked recent graduates of a few of the institutions to read what was said about their alma maters and to let us know if Mr. Fiske and his correspondents had ''hit the mark.''

From a Williams College graduate came this assessment, typical of the others: ''Everything is right on target.''

Mr. Fiske's style is breezy and informative. The descriptions are clearly written with the students - more than their parents - in mind.

Each college in the guide gets from one to five stars for academics, social activities, and quality of life. This latter rating is unique to this guide and is based on something rather elusive - a sort of general feeling combining all the factors that students and faculty feel separate the ''excellent'' campuses from those that ''just do their job.''

Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., for example, gets * * * * for quality of life. The opening sentence reads:

''At first glance, Pepperdine seems like a partygoer's dream come true.''

But the final paragraph begins: ''Pepperdine offers a solid, personalized education in an intimate small-town atmosphere, and most students value it as much for its warmth as for its moral rectitude.''

The University of Kansas also rates four stars for quality of life, as well as * * * * for both social life and academics. Mr. Fiske dubbs this Midwestern university ''a cornbelt Berkeley.''

Two of the universities that offer a cooperative education program (allowing students to sandwich a semester in school after a semester on a related job), Drexel in Philadelphia and Northeastern in Boston, rate only * * for quality of life, presumably because the students are more interested in their jobs than in campus activities.

This selective (and comparative) guide to colleges will undoubtedly be in every college counselor's office and should do a great deal to better match students to the colleges and universities that will best fit their needs, pocketbooks, and life styles.

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