Monday, August 21, 2006

Ranking colleges and universities

If you do not like the criteria used by US News in their annual guide to America’s “best” colleges and universities, you might check out the Washington Monthly alternative. These two alternative approaches illustrate Mies van der Rohe’s dictum: God is in the details. Different criteria produce different rankings.

The US News approach uses criteria that are stacked heavily toward colleges that enroll mostly rich white students. The rankings are based on peer assessment (25%), retention (20%), faculty resources (20%), student selectivity (15%), financial resources (10%), graduation rate performance (5%, and our contribution) and alumni giving rate (5%).

The Washington Monthly criteria take a different approach: Ask not what your college can do for you but ask what you can do for your country with your college education. The rankings use measures in three categories of equal weight: community service (1/3), research (1/3) and social mobility (1/3). The community service component uses data on ROTC enrollments, alumni currently serving in Peace Corps and share of federal work-study grants used for community service. The research component uses data on the amount spent on research, doctorates awarded in science and engineering, and the share of alumni who have later earned PhDs. The social mobility component has two calculated measures based on Pell Grant recipient data: one on actual versus predicted graduation rate controlling for the share of students with Pell Grants, and the other based on the predicted share of Pell Grant recipients based on average SAT scores for admitted students.

So you have two approaches and as you might guess the results are very different. At least these rankings are made public.

But neither approach really gets at student learning, which is why we think students go to college and spend 4 years and truckloads of money to get their degrees. There are two major higher education initiatives that are trying to get answers to this vital question: the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). While these two projects are in early stages of development, both offer real hope of measuring learning processes and outcomes. Unfortunately, these efforts are confidential: institutions participate in these studies but results are not publicly available unless the institution chooses to release them.

If we could pick and choose ranking criteria from the above array of approaches we would choose: 1) the wide distribution vehicle developed by US News through its annual guide (but not their criteria), 2) the community service and social mobility components of Washington Monthly’s ranking, 3) the learning process measures of the National Survey of Student Engagement, and 3) the learning outcomes measures from the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Of course institutions would have to participate in NSSE and CLA and be willing to release their data. But given the possibility of a clumsy and irrelevant government mandate to do something higher education should choose to lead on this issue. After all shouldn’t students who pay $20,000 to $40,000 per year for their higher education know what they are buying?


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