2007-04-05 / Schools

What makes a good college?
What makes a good college?

A recent report that the president of Arizona State University would get a bonus of up to $60,000 if he raises the school's ranking in U.S. News & World Report raised some eyebrows.

The president issued a clarification, saying that his bonus is not contingent on raising the school's overall ranking, but on improving several measures used in the rankings, including graduation rates and resources for faculty members.

Most people in higher education don't have a lot of respect for the magazine's rankings, but even as they disparage the system college administrators work hard to move up on the list because they know that many families think if a school isn't in the top 20 or top 50 it can't be very good.

Some of the numbers in the magazine's ranking system can be useful, like the percentage of students that return after freshman year. But other factors, including the opinions of college administrators who may know absolutely nothing about the other schools they're being asked to rate, are not meaningful.

One of the less benevolent factors used in rankings is selectivity. The lower the percentage of applicants accepted, the higher the selectivity. Colleges increase their selectivity by generating more applications, so admissions officers encourage students to apply even when they know these students will be rejected. The more students they reject, the better the school's ranking. The danger is that students can be seduced by the flattering letters inviting them to apply and then may not apply to other schools that are more realistic and better choices.

If colleges are highly rated because they are hard to get into, what does that tell you about the quality of education at that school? When every student is already highly accomplished before even arriving on campus, the student body consists of overachievers who would be successful anywhere. How do you measure what students have gained in four years, rather than what they brought with them to college?

The National Survey of Student Engagement is in its eighth year of generating information about the kinds of activities associated with good college experiences. More than a million undergraduate students will be asked to respond to a detailed questionnaire that asks how many hours they spend preparing for class, participating in cocurricular activities, working and socializing.

They rate the quality of their relationships with faculty, other students and college administrators. Students are asked how often they make class presentations or work with other students on projects. These are specific questions that address the quality of undergraduate experience at a school.

Survey results are used by colleges to improve programs and services. While the results of the survey are provided to the colleges rather than to the public, some schools choose to share the results.

Families can do their own survey. One of my favorite NSSE questions is whether, given a chance to start over, a student would choose this college again.

When you visit a college, ask some of these questions that get to the heart of the undergraduate experience. Ask students if they discuss career plans with faculty or advisers. Find out how many fivepage or 20-page papers they write and what kind of feedback they get from professors. Ask how often they attend an art show, play, dance or musical performance. Have they worked on a research project with a faculty member or completed an internship?

This kind of information tells you much more about the quality of the educational experience than how few students the college accepts. It's what you come out with, not what you go in with, that is the measure of a college education.

Audrey Kahane, MS, MFA, is a private college admissions counselor in West Hills. She can be reached at (818) 704-7545 or audreykahane@earthlink.net

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