The annual fall dust-up over the rankings published by U.S News & World Report, The Princeton Review, and others has finally died down.
Of course, Harvard University and Williams College (Mass.) both have every right to crow about their top spots in the U.S. News "National University" and "Liberal Arts College" categories if it helps them attract attention.
And the University of Albany must be relieved to have been knocked out of the first spot in The Princeton Review's "Top Party School" list this year. That dubious distinction goes to University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose administration is understandably rankled by how the portrayal undermines their efforts to curb alcohol abuse on campus.
But, as educators have argued for years, the rankings have little value in the real world. Beyond telling readers that, for example, Stanford University (Calif.) has the "happiest students," the rankings don't speak to the quality of the academic experience.
As Reed College (Ore.) President Colin Dyer explained in a November Atlantic Monthly editorial, the "one-size-fits-all ranking schemes undermine the institutional diversity that characterizes American higher education."
Reed stopped playing the rankings game 10 years ago, which some predicted would be detrimental to its recruitment efforts. But Reed has thrived. Indeed, Dyer says the number and quality of applicants has increased steadily over the years.
The popular lists shed little light on what actually goes on once a young person gets shipped off to that top-ranked school. That's where the National Survey of Student Engagement comes in. Since 2000, NSSE (http://nsse.iub.edu) has tried to gauge quality in undergraduate education, by noting and measuring the behaviors and institutional factors that are critical to academic success. The data comes from a survey of 237,000 first-year and senior students who are asked to rate five key areas: level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment.
The NSSE results raise some interesting questions. For example, nearly half of first-year students in this year's survey said they never used career planning, financial advising, or academic tutoring services. Why? That's a question for individual institutions to address--whether it means adding resources or simply making students aware that these services are available--but it's certainly a big part of college success.
The survey also revealed that 45 percent of college seniors took at least one course elsewhere before enrolling in their current institution. This result, say the report authors, is a concern because transfer students participate less in activities that enrich learning.
The results are shared with the individual institutions, but most, wisely, don't make them public. The goal isn't to run another "beauty contest" (which the commercial surveys have become), but to create a tool. By using the results for serious self-assessment, they can make the changes that will truly make them top-ranked institutions.
Join us for the next in our series of web seminars on December 6, as we explore "E-mail Hell: Getting--and Keeping--Your Campus Out of It." Find out more information or view the archived event at our website: www.universitybusiness.com/seminars.
You can reach Tim Goral at firstname.lastname@example.org.