Choosing Colleges and Universities

Posted on November 29, 2017

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I have reached that generation where my friends have children and grandchildren of college age. In the public interest, since I’ve been in higher education more than half a century, I thought I would provide friends and readers with a guide to how colleges and universities rank in this country.

We all know who ranks #1 in football. What about other measures?

Luckily for me, the latest, breaking news on colleges is out. On Wed. Sept. 27, the WSJ published devoted an entire section to the “Higher Education Ranking of U. S. Colleges.” Not surprisingly, Harvard came out on top.

For those of you searching for a college for your children or grandchildren, there are some excellent tools and articles in this section. Go to http://www.WSJ.com/collegerankings , for example, to use a tool that allows you to measure the best outcome or goals—“customized rankings”–that one has in mind.

In fact, you can find this whole section online at that address.

In other words, what do you want your kids and grandkids to come away with after four, or five years, at college?

Is it how much you make after you graduate—finances—that motivates you? Or is it schools that offer “excellence,” fostering intellectual development and “provide engaging teaching” for example?

The rankings also measure how well campuses encourage engagement both with instructors and students, the campus environment, racial, ethnic and financial diversity, and academic resources.

The heaviest component of the ranking formula were “outcome scores,” derived from graduation rates, income after graduation, debt repayment and academic reputation.

Harvard and Duke (ranked 5th overall) were tied for the top spot in outcomes.
Public colleges scored best in diversity, especially those in major cities which are most successful in bringing in a racially and socioeconomically diverse student body. Not surprisingly, these colleges ranked low on outcomes, but the reasons—first generation students to go college, constant money concerns, less than adequate preparation in other areas—are very much worth considering.

Smaller, often private colleges, which ranked low on outcomes, tended to shine in categories such as feeling engaged, as measured by a number of standards including “student insights on things such as whether they feel challenges in the classroom and would recommend the school.” Dordt College (a Reformed Christian school) in Sioux Center, Iowa led the pack in engagement. Texas Christian University (TCU), affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, came in second. Tied for third were Texas A & M, Brigham Young, and Cedarville University in Ohio.

I was a bit surprised by the inclusion of Texas A & M, but President Michael K. Young explained it well. “We realize we are a research colossus. But we work very hard never to lose the focus on students.” Young cited a recent push for all students to have at least two “high impact” or “transformational” learning experiences by graduation, which can include research projects with faculty and study abroad.

For all of you Ivy League grads out there, you flunked on engagement. “Some of the nation’s most elite institutions fell flat on student engagement, a reminder that just because a school has superstar faculty and smart students doesn’t mean they interact in meaningful ways.” Harvard and Princeton, No. 1 and No. 9 overall, tied with many other schools for 533rd on engagement.

Smaller schools excelled in some areas where the top schools lagged behind. Of the top five schools (the top ten were Harvard, Columbia, MIT and Stanford, Duke, Yale, CalTech, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Cornell), only Duke among the top five came in among the top ten when students in a survey were asked if they would choose their school again.

The Master’s University, a small, Christian liberal arts school in California was tops in this category. As one official in Master’s stated, “as a Christian university, our focus isn’t only on academics but on a student’s well-being.”

A very useful section was devoted to schools who prepare students for careers very well, and how they employ internships. Most of the colleges in this category which scored high, such as Kettering University of Flint, Michigan, require students to participate in formal internships or cooperatives. Applying academic concepts to jobs in the real world was a high priority said Robert McMahan, president of Kettering.

One last category I would like to mention, since I have experienced it in teaching my history of the Christian Church online at UA. It is about students sharing their learning experiences. Or, as one professor phrased it, “Peers matter big time, they shape a student’s experience.”

When asked “do you think your college provides an environment where you fell you are surrounded by exceptional students who inspire and motivate you,” the answers—by college types—varied, but one theme “jumped out: Women’s colleges did very well.” Especially Spelman College, a historically black all-women’s school in Atlanta, which finished third in this ranking.

“We certainly expect you to be ambitious for yourself,” said Mary Campbell, president of Spelman, “but we also expect you to be ambitious for each other.”

In my UA online class, I expected the students to interact often and thoughtfully with each other, and the opinions and interpretations of their fellow classmates. I jumped in frequently, and I learned more about those kids than in any face to face class I had in forty+ years of teaching. We all went away with a better understanding of the history of the Christian experience and how that history applies in our lives.

And I know some of you may be asking: where was the University of Alabama ranked? 464, along with Christian Brothers University in Memphis and Hastings College, Hastings, Nebraska.

Published Oct. 1, 2017 as “Elements of Ranking Colleges are Varied,” in The Tuscaloosa News.

 

 

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