Unreliable Guide


Choosing a College, by Thomas Sowell, New York: Harper & Row, 214 pages, $17.95/$7.95 paper

Thomas Sowell is often—and intentionally—controversial, occasionally infuriating, never boring, and usually right. From clever applications and extensions of basic economic principles, to broader social, philosophical, and public policy questions, his perspectives and contributions have earned him a substantial readership and a loyal following (of which this reviewer is a member). Thus when he sets out, as father, economist, and educator, to write a guide for prospective college students and their parents, the reader anticipates a solid addition to the genre. However, Choosing a College proves a disappointing and perhaps even disturbing book.

Bashing higher education has been a popular participant and spectator sport of the 1980s. Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, aided by former Secretary of Education William Bennett and others, fueled debates on Western civilization. (Bennett also scolded students for having too much money and colleges for taking it from them.) Charles Sykes's Profscam claimed, among other things, that professors have driven a large, self-serving wedge between reward and effort. Other forays have included investigations of big-time college athletics, the validity of both standardized admissions tests and preparatory courses (as well as the causes of declining SAT scores in this country), and, most recently, alleged collusion and pricefixing among the nation's elite colleges and universities.

In Choosing, Sowell is, for all practical purposes, functioning as a critic of higher education. The book is not so much a guide as it is a personal litany of complaints that are barely distinguishable from those of Bennett, Bloom, Sykes, and others. Siskel and Ebert review films, sometimes very critically, but they are not openly hostile to the medium. They are also knowledgeable—and they do their homework. The same could be said of those in the ABC booth for "Monday Night Football."

But reading Sowell on colleges is akin to watching Sam Donaldson covering Republican conventions: He is uncomfortable with this crowd, his satisfactions are heavily dependent on an occasional, serendipitous uncovering of land mines in the making, and his fears of being boring or ignored influence his reporting. Sowell needs no permit to be a critic of higher education, though he may have to take a number and get in line, but he should not be doing it in the guise of a purported how-to volume subtitled "A Guide for Parents and Students."

Throughout Choosing, Sowell is openly hostile, angry, and goading toward most of higher education. His complaints are seemingly ubiquitous, and his language is unnecessarily pejorative and condescending. Sowell rails against coed dormitories, public graffiti, interdisciplinary programs, Marxists, professors who don't teach undergraduates, social permissiveness, college athletics, treatment of minorities, and even food on campus. From an avowed purpose "to help parents and students sort out some basic and very important questions" and "to offer some practical suggestions," he tells parents in the same breath "not [to] defer to, or be intimidated by, educators who have failed so many children in so many ways for so long."

The first third of the book is by far the best. Chapters one through four offer solid information and thoughtful counsel on a range of important questions—tests and admissions, costs and financial aid, differences among colleges (including institutional type and personal factors such as values). Normative aspects in these pages are confined to the economist's perspective that working one's way through college is less efficient than borrowing (though this overlooks the social and change-of-pace benefits from working while attending school), and the assertion that research universities value research over teaching (while rejoinders from these institutions would point out that these two activities are closely and positively related because involvement in the advancement of knowledge increases effectiveness in the classroom).

In this section and throughout the book, Sowell focuses almost entirely on permutations of doctorates—the percentage of an undergraduate student body continuing on for Ph.D.s (very small even in the best colleges), the percentage of faculty members at a given school with Ph.D.s, the graduate schools and programs whence a college's faculty members obtained their Ph.D.s, and so forth—as the basic measure of quality. While probably important, placing these criteria so far beyond anything else, to the exclusion of all others (including graduates who pursue advanced training and careers in business, law, or medicine, for example), is odd and quite likely distorts the larger case he wants to make.

The middle third of the book is inappropriate at best. Chapters five to seven dwell, via a collection of anecdotes and thinly disguised prejudices, on Sowell's pet peeves and on factors that one may want to consider in making the most of college once matriculated but not in choosing one school over another. While topics such as tests, financial aid, other published guides, and libraries receive some coverage, the largest sections are devoted to indoctrination and irresponsibility in teaching, the sexual environment, and how colleges mismatch black students. Furthermore, here and in subsequent chapters Sowell assumes levels of both naiveté and sophistication on the part of parents and high school seniors that are unlikely and inconsistent.

Few would argue with Sowell's comment that "the policies, practices, and attitudes of colleges and their officials can influence the social environment, which can be of enormous importance to the personal as well as academic development of a student." But this is the introduction to one of the longest sections in the book, and what follows it is a condemnation of current sexual policies, practices, and attitudes, which include distribution of "safer sex" kits, encouragement of nontraditional sexual experimentation, pro-gay and lesbian stances, and coed dormitories (the longest list in the entire book is of colleges and universities with predominantly single-sex living accommodations). The point is not that such things are unimportant—calling attention to abuses and biases is to be applauded—but that Sowell's coverage is callow and caustic and has little in the way of substance or counsel.

In previously published material Sowell raised the "mismatch" issue—that black students on many campuses may be at the top of their academic group or with respect to the population as a whole, but their academic records would place them near the bottom of student bodies at their predominantly white institutions. The point is controversial, it raises both hackles and important policy questions, and it is a claim that in this day and age could have been made explicit only by a black educator such as Sowell. But beyond this, the chapter on minority students is unfortunately of little use to, and probably unrealistic for, the vast majority of black students and their families.

While Edward Fiske and other authors of popular guidebooks rely on small armies of students, surveys, and reams of data for their commentaries and tables, Sowell's research exhibits little depth. His cases and examples are largely anecdotal and most likely isolated examples that could be generated—and virtually assured—by the Law of Large Numbers. They would never survive the statistical demands and standards of empirical research commonly accepted by his discipline and by Sowell himself.

The only references to teaching quality at Princeton, for instance, are comments on course evaluations that refer to professors as "rambling, confusing, unorganized, or even incoherent," hardly representative either of faculty members or of course evaluations at that institution. Sowell apparently didn't apply to one liberal arts college because he didn't like the soup they served him at lunch in the cafeteria, which, along with denigrating teaching in the Ivy League, gives new meaning to the expression "from soup to nuts."

Sowell mentions more than 300 colleges and universities, many of them repeatedly, in 200 pages of text but offers little evidence to support his ubiquitous "four good schools for this, five for that" lists. In addition, he implicitly proposes a new, and seemingly testable, hypothesis that graffiti correlates inversely with positive attitudes; he should test the assertion or drop it.

While he alleges rating inconsistencies across guidebooks and methods of evaluating teaching quality (though one might counterallege that neither hypothesis could survive empirical scrutiny), Sowell encourages parents, during campus visits while their children are off in the dorms being poisoned by bad food or exposed to sexual deviants and drug users, to strike up conversations with local waitresses, department store cashiers, and gas station attendants to get the real inside information on the school. This is a source of insight somehow completely overlooked by all previous writers of college guidebooks.

And although Sowell belongs to a discipline that believes that information, like all other goods and services, is a scarce resource, and thus one should make rational decisions based on less-than-perfect knowledge, he advises students and their parents in their copious spare time to buy subscriptions to local newspapers, consult city and county data books for socioeconomic breakdowns of the population, check climate atlases for precise rainfall and snowfall figures, purchase catalogues and guide books, and spend at least two days on each campus visit. In addition, he assumes that while most Americans cannot remember the names of their own congressmen, they are capable of looking at a syllabus and knowing instantaneously that Zinn writes "crude propaganda," but Genovese is a Marxist with ethical standards, or that Tribe, Dworkin, and Posner are legal scholars of particular political persuasions (rather than three astronauts or linebackers for the New York Giants?).

The concluding section, chapters 8–12, initially reverts back to and expands on the material in the first four chapters—tests, published guides, college brochures—but quickly lapses into a continuation of now-familiar gripes: graffiti, stereos, inaccessible big-name professors, propaganda and syllabi, the admissions "game"—all punctuated with adjectives such as "ludicrous" and "pathetic."

Overall, Sowell's material is subjective and arbitrary; he is rarely helpful or thoughtful; and his implicit hypotheses would likely fail most empirical investigations. Despite some inconsistencies noted by Sowell across popular guides to colleges, for instance, the consistencies far outweigh the discrepancies; good students avoid Mickey Mouse courses, and the campus grapevine is a very efficient provider of information; and by and large college admissions directors and advisers are knowledgeable, professional, and concerned about the welfare of students and families, rather than being the academy's equivalent of used car salesmen.

One should applaud Sowell's emphasis on bringing parents into these conversations, his stress on the value of a good liberal arts education, and the candor with which he takes on some current social and political practices or mores on campus that leave even many insiders privately queasy. He also offers solid advice and information on testing, the complexities of admissions, financial aid and meeting the costs of college, and personal factors that one might want to consider in narrowing the field.

His digressions, however, are more than mere distractions; they represent convenient vehicles for diatribes and outlets for his personal dissatisfactions and tastes. He is so overwhelmingly negative and critical (without the offering many prescriptions for change) that parents who read the book might prefer that their children avoid college altogether. If Sowell submitted anything like Choosing, in terms of tone and assertions, to a professional journal, it would be summarily and resoundingly dismissed. But this is far too good a jockey, and too important a horse, not to hope that he'll get into shape for another run for the roses.

Allen R. Sanderson, an economist, is associate provost at the University of Chicago. He has two children in college.