||College ranking needs reform
Article published in the Sept. 9, 2001 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal by Centre president John Roush
With an anxiousness similar to that felt by this year's freshman class when opening their acceptance letters, thousands of college presidents and administrators are scrambling this week as they learn whether they "got in" to the tier of their choice.
U.S. News and World Report college rankings began in 1983, the year most members of the entering freshman class were born. For them, U.S. News rankings have always existed. And for this class there have always been complaints, many by college presidents like myself, that the rating ritual creates more stress than light and we would be better off without it.
I take a different view: it's a waste of breath and ink to yearn for a return to those days when the only college rankings involved athletic teams. Academic ratings aren't going away. Our energy is better spent promoting methods of evaluation that reliably identify educational quality.
This is beginning to happen. U.S. News has made positive contributions as the rankings "gold standard" by focusing attention on higher education and forcing institutions to engage in self examination. But many in education and the media are realizing the U.S. News methodology has created a literal gold standard: those with the gold set the standard.
Now a growing chorus of voices (Washington Monthly, National Public Radio, New York Times, Atlantic Monthly) is pointing out that while glittering endowments and sparkling reputations are the coin of the rankings realm, they often produce a disappointing return on investment. All these commentators point to the new kid on the block: the National Survey on Student Engagement.
The NSSE, backed by a $3.2 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, originated with a group of educators looking for an alternative to U.S. News. NSSE's core assumption is that learning is directly related to time on task. Thus the educators set out to measure, not how institutions spend their money, but how students spend their time.
The NSSE questionnaire was distributed to students at 420 colleges and universities across the country last year. It asked questions such as "how much time do you spend preparing for class," "how much writing do you do," and "how often do you discuss academic topics with faculty outside of class."
Not surprisingly, students who spent more time on academic work and had more contact with faculty members rated both their educational progress and overall satisfaction with their school more highly than those who worked less and had less faculty contact.
This approach improves our ability to identify real educational quality. As the focus shifts from institutional endowment to student empowerment, we get a clearer picture of how education changes lives for the better. It's unlikely that this new standard will replace the U.S. News approach, but my hope is that it will cause U.S. News and others to focus more on student experience. This won't be easy.
There is a longstanding bias in academic circles favoring the university model that emphasizes research over teaching. And many institutions won't welcome public scrutiny of educational practices that put students second.
Despite the difficulty, this crusade is worth the effort. Current U.S. News methodology, though it does measure many parameters that enable institutions to deliver quality education, is seriously incomplete. It contributes to a more or less permanent underclass of schools that can rarely if ever overtake their wealthier counterparts, though they may be transforming the lives of students on a regular basis.
There is considerable cause for optimism. The NSSE notion that hard work and faculty availability are key to learning is striking a common-sense chord among educators and non-educators alike. In addition, a significant student-experience component in evaluation criteria will focus national attention on the other neglected element in the educational equation: dedicated teachers whose first commitment is to their students. The appropriateness of this is borne out not only by research, but by recalling our own educational experiences that made a difference.
The NSSE is a milestone in the search for educational quality, and using its methodology to create a more balanced approach will bear fruit far beyond improved guidebooks. What we honor with praise and high rankings inevitably begins to occur with greater frequency on college campuses. When student experience is a key part of assessment, we will see institutions asking more of their students and encouraging faculty members to make student learning and growth their top priority. And we will see generations of more-engaged and therefore better-educated young people.
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