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U.S. News vs. NSSE

I have a story on our site today about the love-hate relationship between college administrators and the U.S. News rankings. The story focuses particularly on the National Survey of Student Engagement, a response to U.S. News from within the higher education industry.

I wanted to showcase NSSE because it is probably the accountability tool most often cited by the college presidents I meet -- apart from U.S. News -- and yet it's not very well-known in the general public. It's a truly different way of looking at colleges, attempting to discern how much learning is actually happening at a particular school rather than show where the school ranks in overall quality and selectivity.

The greatest weakness of U.S. News may be its linear quality: how, precisely, is the 12th-ranked school better than the 13th? And what of the many hundreds of very worthy schools that aren't in the "first tier," and the majority of the nation's college students who attend them schools?

The big flaw in NSSE may be that it is proprietary. The results aren't public, although USA Today has collected a lot of them in a searchable database that is very much public. Those schools volunteer to participate. I would suppose that they are generally schools that do well on the survey. (Surely every school can't outperform the average for its institutional class.)

I asked the directors of each product to speak to these issues. They very kindly agreed.

If each college is unique, why attempt to rank them? I posed that question to Bob Morse, director of data research for U.S. News.

His reply:

Colleges are not as different or unique as college presidents say they are. There are broad similarities in admission practices and in curriculums in such fields as English, history, economics, engineering, nursing, education and business. Yes, there are big variances in campus locations and cultures, but in terms of what is actually taught in the college class rooms nationwide-it's more similar than different. The reason why U.S. News ranks colleges is that we believe that colleges can be compared on many key academic criteria. Our rankings do provide one tool for prospective students to use to determine the relative merits between colleges in order to help them choose the right college for them. U.S. News believes there are real measurable differences between colleges. However, it is important for prospective students and their parents to remember that using the rankings as the sole basis to choose one college versus another is the absolute wrong way to use our Best Colleges rankings. It's vitally important to go visit the campus and ask questions.

If NSSE data are so useful, why not make the survey public? I put that question to Alexander McCormick, director of NSSE.

His reply:

As your article clearly shows, NSSE provides diagnostic, actionable information that participating colleges can use to improve the quality of undergraduate education. NSSE participation is voluntary, so the benefit to a school has to exceed the cost. Focusing the benefit on educational improvement rather than good PR or bragging rights allows more schools to gauge their performance. One more important consideration: NSSE trusts students to provide the candid, unvarnished truth about their experience. If NSSE were to become the basis of a new ranking, it wouldn't take long for students to figure out that their school's standing--and the value of their degree--is based on how they answer our questions. If they start shading their answers to improve their school's standing, NSSE's accuracy and usefulness will disappear overnight.

Finally, it's important to note that NSSE data are publicly available for a great many colleges and universities--in the USA TODAY database, in the Voluntary System of Accountability (www.collegeportraits.org), and on institutions' own Web sites.

Perhaps you have a followup question. Post it here, and I'll see if I can get it answered.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  February 15, 2010; 10:08 AM ET
Categories:  Administration , Rankings , Research  | Tags: NSSE, U.S. News, accountability, college rankings  
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