Do College Rankings Miss Student Engagement?

New study finds no relationship between scoring high in several rankings and the measures considered by leading survey of student engagement.

January 15, 2018
 

Each fall, college rankings are released and -- much to the distress of many college counselors and admissions officers -- many prospective students and their parents pay attention.

Research released last week by two education researchers finds no relationship (and sometimes a negative relationship) between high rankings and measures of student engagement calculated by the National Survey of Student Engagement. The research -- published in The Review of Higher Education (abstract available here) -- examined three national ranking systems. They are (with links to their varying methodologies): U.S. News & World Report, Forbes and Washington Monthly. U.S. News has typically been the dominant ranking, with a formula based on surveys of presidents, admissions competitiveness, resources and other factors. Forbes puts more emphasis on its measures of postgraduation success. Washington Monthly places more of an emphasis on measures of social mobility and also community service during college and after graduation.

NSSE does not attempt to rank colleges, and not all NSSE results are public. But it asks a variety of questions designed to focus on student engagement, looking at measures such as student-faculty contact, student discussions in and out of class, academic work and other activities done by students, and so forth. Just as the rankings are regularly criticized, NSSE has come in for criticism as well, from researchers who question the way its questions are framed and whether it predicts success in college. Still, many educators say that the qualities NSSE measures (even if they can't be combined into a ranking) are indeed important to many students' college experience.

The new study was conducted by John Zilvinskis, assistant professor of student affairs administration at Binghamton University of the State University of New York, and Louis Rocconi, assistant professor of educational psychology and research at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

They examined the data on student engagement from 80,000 students at 64 of the colleges and universities that participated in NSSE in 2013. They then compared the data to the rankings from the three outlets they studied. They found little or no relationship between the measures of student engagement and the rankings. In fact, on the NSSE measures about interaction with faculty members, the research found a negative relationship between high levels of interaction and high rankings.

"Our results demonstrate that, contrary to conventional wisdom, higher-ranked institutions do not necessarily provide a superior educational experience," Zilvinskis and Rocconi wrote in their paper. "In fact, educational quality, as indicated by engagement, seems to have little to do with institutional rank."

Rankings editors had varying reactions to the study.

Robert Kelchen, the data editor for Washington Monthly's rankings, said he would like to use NSSE data in the rankings. But he noted that, because only some colleges release their NSSE data, that isn't possible. He said he hoped the authors of the study would urge colleges to release their NSSE data so those who do rankings and another analyses can use the information.

Robert Morse, who runs the rankings at U.S. News, noted that the number of colleges analyzed in the new study represents less than 5 percent of those evaluated by U.S. News. And he also noted that NSSE data are not generally public.

Via email, Morse added, "Furthermore, our mission with Best Colleges is to evaluate academic quality at school, and the methodology is developed to reflect that. This is why we heavily evaluate graduation and freshman retention rates in the rankings, for example. We strongly believe that students and their families should look at these indicators to see if schools are academically and financially supporting their students through graduation. Regarding the note on faculty interaction, we do factor in the rankings student-to-faculty ratio, class size and the percentage of full-time faculty. Research shows that these components of a college education can foster a more productive and positive learning environment."

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