Timothy O’Brien is thrice-blessed: He's Irish, Catholic and a Notre Dame graduate.

None of those ties, though, necessarily make it automatic that he'll ship his son Finbar off to South Bend after high school. For one thing, O’Brien says his own education at Notre Dame in the 1970s eventually led him to forsake the Catholic faith.

O’Brien returned to the Church a dozen years later, but believes that the Golden Dome remains tarnished. Notre Dame today, he points out, is a campus where The Vagina Monologues has become an annual affair, incoming freshmen are required to attend a lecture on homosexuality and binge drinking is commonplace.

“We needed to be told the truth about Notre Dame,” says O’Brien. “It needs to be published to everyone, especially Catholics.”

Truth be told, the truth's been told. O’Brien and Finbar read a candid review of Notre Dame in Choosing the Right College 2006, the fifth such edition published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) of Wilmington, Del. First published in 1998, Choosing the Right College evaluates schools with an announced agenda: promoting its perspective that students are best served by a genuine liberal-arts education grounded in traditional humanities and mandated through a rigorous core curriculum that utilizes classic texts written by great minds.

That benchmark is applied to 134 schools — 75 of them the most selective national universities and liberal-arts colleges, the rest having “special emphases, unique virtues and distinctive missions.”

There was a time, notes Choosing the Right College editor John Zmirak, when most schools offered the traditional education his book espouses. But, he says, when Harvard ditched its core curriculum in the 1970s, “a bunch of schools lemming-like ran over the cliff.”

And while many schools today may claim to offer a core curriculum, mandatory requirements often can be satisfied with fluff. A Harvard student, for instance, can fill his foreign culture credits by studying “Nazi Cinema.”

“Basically, they've transformed what used to be a carefully thought out menu by a chef… into the buffet bar at Shoney's,” says Zmirak. “Students can just fill their plate with bacon and the school doesn't care. We're looking for schools that still serve healthy food and require the student to eat it.”

Zmirak points to just two well-known schools with true core curricula — Columbia and the University of Chicago. Others come close, but even more fall short. For such schools, Choosing the Right College constructs a suggested core with classes that students can take on their own. The guide's academic probes also identify best and worst professors, departments and programs, the prevalence of teacher assistants, whether research or teaching is emphasized, and whether professors allow true dissent of thought — conservative or liberal — or merely indoctrinate.

Choosing the Right College also puts student life under the microscope, critically evaluating housing (are there coed dorms/bathrooms?), campus crime, how much studying vs. partying the students do and so on. The book also offers vital statistics, such as tuition, room and board costs, average test scores, class sizes, student-faculty ratios and enrollments.

Zmirak notes that one of the guide's greatest challenges was getting schools to provide or admit to accurate data. Information also comes from interviews with students, faculty and grads (promised confidentiality), studies, investigative journalism and analyses of curricula.

Recognizing Excellence

Unlike many other college guides, though, this is not a book of numbers or of “advertorials” written by the schools themselves (as some guides allow). Instead, the 134 evaluations are presented through cheeky, entertaining and sometimes cutting essays that may not be for everyone. A hint, for instance, of what is to come in Georgetown University's review is signaled by its first subhead: “Ignatius wept.” (Georgetown is a Jesuit institution.)

Simply reporting such facts, though, imply to some that Choosing the Right College is merely a right-wing attack on higher education. And, not surprisingly, the book comes with conservative seals of approval. William Bennett penned the book's introduction; its cover is adorned with thumbs-ups from Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Michael Medved, Thomas Sowell and other popular conservative commentators.

Such names sounded alarm bells for a college counselor in California who posted a critical review of the guide on Amazon.com. “The reviews of the schools inside pretty much criminalize intellectualism, freedom and the Young Democrats,” wrote the counselor, who declined to be interviewed by the Register.

Zmirak counters such criticism by saying that the guide recognizes excellence whether it comes with a lean to the right or left. For example, the aforementioned University of Colorado, though otherwise roundly criticized, is praised for an honors program that “is one of the strongest in the country.”

Says Zmirak: “If they have a serious curriculum and academic freedom where they don't use a classroom as a bully pulpit to indoctrinate students with any political view, we treat them very generously.”

Parents and students are encouraged to gather their own information on schools by asking questions and considering issues as suggested in the back of the book.

Anthony Flott writes from Papillion, Nebraska.

Information

Intercollegiate Studies Institute Inc. (800) 526-7022

isi.org/college_guide