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September 08, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Guest Opinion: Choosing a college -- go deeper than the rankings Guest Opinion: Choosing a college -- go deeper than the rankings (September 08, 2004)

by Tom Ehrlich

The latest U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges and universities are out, and I fear they may only add to the stress of Palo Alto-area high-school seniors who are seeking admission to a top-ranked college or university.

The students should relax. First, careful research has shown that the rankings are not good indicators of the quality of education students will find on a campus.

Second, the really good news is that there are many wonderful campuses that provide superb undergraduate education -- from the perspective of one who has spent most of my professional life in higher-education.

The gymnastic-scoring scandals that roiled the recent Olympics revealed problems not dissimilar to those involved in ranking colleges. Whether a particular gymnast was properly awarded a few hundredths of a point, and thus a medal, depended on both objective measures and subjective judgments made in applying formulae that are largely hidden from public view.

Where a college is ranked depends largely on some objective measures, particularly how selective colleges are in choosing their students, based on average ACT or SAT scores. But subjective judgments play a huge role -- particularly the opinions of college and university presidents who are asked to rank other colleges based on their reputations.

As one who used to fill out such surveys regularly, I can attest that few institutional leaders know well more than a handful of the campuses they are asked to rank. Most of their opinions are based on little more than gossip.

But a new study by two leading university professors casts even greater doubt on the "top 50" rankings of U.S. News. The professors, George D. Kuh and Ernest T. Pascarella, writing in Change magazine, showed first that the rankings can be reproduced largely by looking at how selective the colleges are in choosing incoming students -- based on SAT or ACT scores.

Then they compared selectivity with good practices in undergraduate education. Kuh and Pascarella clearly demonstrated that the relation is minimal. A college's selectivity, in other words, is a poor indicator of whether students write a good deal or take part in such activities as service-learning that promote high levels of learning and personal development.

Obviously, student selectivity -- and thus high rankings -- and good educational practices are not mutually exclusive. But prospective students and their parents could make troubling mistakes if they rely solely on the rankings.

Rankings do little to tell students how they will react to the learning environment of a campus, how much they will be stimulated both in and out of class, or how much they will be stretched to excel.

The best indicator of whether a campus will feel right for a student is a visit. When possible, prospective students should spend time on any campus they are considering -- and they should not rely just on organized presentations and tours. They should listen and learn from current undergraduates, for their experiences are good guides to what life will be like.

It's important to check out not just the curriculum but also the extra-curricular offerings and the campus climate. Students should trust a combination of their heads and their hearts in thinking about how and how well they will engage at a college or university.

A campus visit should be supplemented by as much information as possible about the quality of teaching, learning and living on a campus.

Today there is another way to help students and parents make informed decisions: the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). Each year the survey collects information directly from undergraduates at hundreds of campuses, based on research about how and under what circumstances students learn most effectively.

Prospective students can find out whether a college participates in this student-engagement survey. If so, they may be able to obtain valuable insights about the extent to which students find the academic work challenging, the degree to which students become active learners, the extent of student-faculty interactions, the richness of the out-of-class experiences, the overall campus environment, the exposure to diverse cultural experiences, and how technology is used.

NSSE provides a Pocket Guide on questions students should ask, drawn from the survey. Research confirms that those questions give a good picture of how much students are really learning -- something the rankings can't tell. (For information on the Pocket Guide, see

Fortunately, many campuses may be a right fit for any particular student, so there are many from which to choose.

The quality of campus resources and of incoming students -- factors that dominate most rankings -- should be considered. But no one would choose a hospital based on the health of patients coming into the hospital and no one should choose a college based primarily on grades and test scores of incoming students.

Since learning is the primary goal of going to college, students should focus on what environment will best support them in becoming successful learners, and best meet their needs and interests. Taking the time and effort to investigate an institution fully before choosing where to apply is a short-term investment that will bring dividends for life.

Thomas Ehrlich is a senior scholar at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching on the Stanford campus. He was dean of the Stanford Law School in the 1970s and president of Indiana University from 1987 to 1994. He is the author or editor of ten books, including co-authoring Educating Citizens: Preparing America's Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility (2003). He can be e-mailed at


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