College ratings to trust
If you are, as the law school applicant in my family has begun to call them, a prestige whore, then I guess the U.S. News & World Report America's Best Colleges rankings are for you. Those lists are based heavily on what colleges think of each other---what is called the reputational score. The higher the rank, the wider the smile on your grandmother's face when you get in.
But if you want an introduction to a lesser known, but to my mind more useful, rating of undergraduate institutions, take a close look at my colleague Daniel de Vise's examination of the National Survey of Student Engagement, part of washingtonpost.com's new higher education page.
The NSSE, or "Nessie" to its friends, tells you not how much esteem the masses hold for a college, but how much value it has added to its students' lives. It does not ask college presidents at other schools to rate the campus. It asks students who actually studied there. The questions are based on the most extensive research of what makes a valuable college experience: How many short papers did you write? How often did you talk to professors out of class about what you were learning? How much contact did you have with students of different backgrounds?
I admit I did not give Nessie enough credit in its early years after a team of experts at Indiana University, with money from the Pew Charitable Trusts, created the new rating system in 1999. In 2003 I said as an attempt to counter the U.S. News rankings, it was "an act akin to unleashing Mothra to kill Godzilla, and so far about as successful."
Nessie still has nothing close to the power over student perceptions of colleges as the U.S. News list does, but more people are looking at it, and appreciating the new insights it adds to the college search. As former NSSE director George D. Kuh tried to drill into me, measuring college quality was only one of the new list's three objectives. The others were improving higher education institutions and learning more about effective educational practices, both of which were more important to Kuh than rating colleges.
All that fresh NSSE data has produced surprises. My favorite was its revelation that much-maligned helicopter parents, those identified by their children as deeply involved in their college lives, did things that correlated with their children havivg above average learning experiences in college.
The NSSE findings are fun to click through. They still haven't persuaded enough schools to release their data so they can be compared to other campuses, but that will come in time. Look at the questions NSSE asks, and use some of those next time you visit your first and second choices You will not only get some answers, but discover which schools care about how much you learn, and not just how much you will impress your parents' neighbors with the new decal on your car.
For more from Jay, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| February 16, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: George Kuh, Godzilla, National Survey of Student Engagement, U.S. News America's Best Colleges, best college ratings, measuring college value
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