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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'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

By Jay Mathews  | 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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The unacknowledged elephant in the room is the cost-efficiency of colleges - which school give you the best bang for the buck?

While there's this charmingly romantic notion that college is an elevating experience that transforms the callow, parochial child into a confident world-citizen the truth is that most people, parents and students who don't have mom and dad to tap into, are just interested in making a good living. The less they have to spend to achieve that result the better.

So, which college produces the best income for the least outgo?

Posted by: allenm1 | February 16, 2010 7:29 AM | Report abuse

The NSSE website is awful. The USAToday link was the best on the site. It seems a shame that it takes an newspaper to make your information accessible.

Anyway, the actually useful link:

Posted by: em15 | February 16, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the link, em15, but it still doesn't give me the percentages of each answer to the survey by school. Further, it is likely that each deparement in a college may have significantly different results. If Jay could publish the survey responses for a few colleges (e.g. U. MD, George Mason and that evil U.Va. which along with every other college I've found does not accept IB S.L exam scores for credit, the his analysis of NSEE might be of help to some students. Indeed, he might even consider using the HSSSE in his ratings of high schools.

Also, got to agree with AllenM1 that most students want to know how much their college will increase their earnings and help them find jobs much more than the NSSE answers. Maybe NSSE results would help Journalism majors (who really can't expect their major to lead to employment) but for Business and science majors, other than the survey question answers about how much time students spend on homework and study, job prospects trump NSSE-type considerations.

Posted by: mct210 | February 16, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

While I sympathize with the idealistic premise of this piece, realistically I would consider the BusinessWeek "return on investment" rankings a better place to start:

Posted by: CrimsonWife | February 17, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, CrimsonWife. I think I'll ask my students which they'd prefer to have seen.

Posted by: mct210 | February 18, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

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