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Guidance Counselors

Academic Quality: How do you know?

One of the primary things parents and counselors look at in helping their students select a college is the “quality” of the education students are likely to receive at an institution. But how can you, as a parent, ascertain “quality” and what does “quality” mean? The definition of “academic quality” has become a national conversation, with no clear consensus.

The familiar college rankings, discussed here first, are one measure.  But there are others as well that may be more helpful to you as a parent.  See Alternative Measures of Quality.

A Perspective on College Rankings
Each year in August, U.S. News and World Report publishes its college rankings issue. And each year there is growing controversy about those rankings. In 2007 a movement began among some colleges to remove themselves from these rankings and consider alternate methods of giving parents and other interested parties information that could be used to judge “quality.”

Nevertheless, the U.S. News rankings have had such an impact on colleges and universities that many of them develop strategies to increase their rankings, strategies that many believe can actually be detrimental to the institution and its students.

It might be helpful to look at the factors and methods U.S. News uses to develop its rankings. According to U.S. News, these are the primary factors:

Peer assessment. The magazine sends surveys to presidents and provosts at other institutions, asking them to rate a given institution. These ratings account for 25% of any college’s ranking, and they assume both detailed knowledge and objectivity that may or may not be present. About half of the surveys are completed.

Retention. The proportion of freshmen who return to a college for their sophomore year, combined with the proportion of students who start as freshmen and graduate within 6 years, account, together, for another 20%. The assumption is that if a student doesn’t return or graduate, the college is not meeting that student’s needs. Parents may want to think about the variety of factors that can affect a student’s desire to return to a college and his/her ability to graduate. The measure also doesn’t account for transfer students, who make up a significant portion of the college population these days. So colleges that have a high proportion of transfer students will show poorly on rankings simply by virtue of the composition of their student body.
Faculty resources. The factors making up this 20% are: class size, faculty salaries, proportion of faculty having the highest degree in their field, student/faculty ratio and percentage of faculty who are full-time. One might observe that in some measure, these factors are related to the relative wealth of an institution and to a belief that full-time faculty with PhDs are the best teachers.

Student selectivity. ACT/SAT scores of incoming students, as well as high school class rank and the proportion of applicants an institution accepts make up 15% of the ranking. The assumption here is “the better the students, the better the institution.” Many colleges have come to believe, with solid evidence, that test scores are not a predictor of academic success in college and have therefore stopped using them as acceptance criteria. U.S. News doesn’t include these colleges in its rankings.

Financial Resources. How much a college spends per student on instruction, research, and student services accounts for another
10 %. Thus, colleges that charge higher tuition and have large endowments are likely to be more highly ranked.

Graduation rate performance. Here is U.S. News’s description of this 5% category: “We measure the difference between a school's six-year graduation rate for the class that entered in 2000 and the rate we predicted for the class. If the actual graduation rate is higher than the predicted rate, the college is enhancing achievement.” It would be interesting to know how they develop their predictions. Again, transfer students are not taken into account.

Alumni giving rate. The magazine believes that the percentage of alumni who give to their alma mater is an “indirect measure of student satisfaction.” This 5% share doesn’t take into account the professions of alumni, perhaps tilting the rankings toward colleges that emphasize preparation for more highly paid professions, rather than those that are more service-oriented such as teaching and nursing.

If you use the U.S. News rankings as one measure of college quality in your student’s selection process, it might help to be aware of what the rankings mean and how they are compiled. You can find U.S. News’s description on their website. Click here for another article on their methodology.

U.S.News ranks Grand View in Tier I of Midwestern colleges and universities.