College survey aims to go beyond rankings

Ivies beware: a new college survey suggests there are better ways of assessing universities than rankings alone.

Last week, more than 200 universities nationwide released their results from the National Survey of Student Engagement for publication in the magazine USA Today. But Yale and other Ivy League schools did not participate in the survey.

Administrators at universities that participated said NSSE represents an alternative approach that — contrary to highly subjective college rankings such as those in U.S. News and World Report — gives students’ perspective on important academic criteria without assigning each school a score that compares it to others.

“We don’t use our results to rank institutions,” she said. “The data is collected directly from students based on their experiences. The survey’s intent is to help institutions diagnose their own strengths and shortcomings.”

NSSE began conducting surveys with universities around the country in 1999, according to the organization’s Web site. Until now, the survey’s results have been provided to the universities solely for the benefit of the institutions, and some schools that participate in the NSSE still chose not to release information to USA Today.

“Some people thought it was not designed for comparison from school to school but was supposed to be an internal thing,” said Eric Ditwiler, director of academic operations at Harvey Mudd College, which released its survey results.

The colleges are assessed according to five metrics — level of academic rigor, extent of active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences and supportive campus environment.

NSSE compares each university’s score, awarded on a scale from one to 100, to the benchmark mean of all the universities’ scores for that particular category. Each school receives two scores for each category — one that represents the experiences of first-year students and another for seniors’ experiences.

In the category of student-faculty interaction, for example, Harvey Mudd first-years reported a score of 35.5 compared to a benchmark score of 37.0, and seniors reported a score of 59.9 compared to a benchmark score of 49.8, according to the NSSE report.

Now that the results of the survey are open to the public, students can access them when making their college decisions.

“I think there’s a lot of value of them for students,” Kinzie said. “Just getting students to ask better questions and look at different aspects of a school is important.”

Participation in the survey is entirely up to each university. Yale and the other Ivies have never used the NSSE. Kinzie said she thinks Ivy League schools do not participate because schools that are more secure in their academic reputations are less likely to participate in lesser-known assessments.

“There’s a connection to the higher the ranking [in U.S. News], the less likely the school is to participate in this survey,” said Lyn Alexander, a college counselor at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

None of the universities ranked in US News and World Report’s top ten uses the NSSE. But schools such as Harvey Mudd and Middlebury College, which rank high relative to other liberal arts colleges, do participate.

“It’s a useful source of information that we hope families will end up using just as much as rankings,” Middlebury Dean of Admissions Robert Clagett said. “It measures what we think are truly valid ways of looking at colleges.”

But both high school students and current Yalies said despite the new survey, they are still skeptical of rankings and official assessment programs, especially when they are highly publicized.

Christian Ronzio ’11 said college rankings did not affect his application choices.

“I think they’re a good thing, but how can you say that this school is better academically than the other one?” he said.

Brian Bettonville, a senior at St. Louis University High School in St. Louis, Missouri, said he would be interested to see the results of the NSSE survey because it assesses schools in a novel way, but he would not put too much weight on either the survey or the U.S. News rankings.

In September, Yale hosted a conference entitled “Beyond the Rankings” to foster discussion among college administrators, high school counselors, professors, parents and students about alternatives to the U.S. News rankings.

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