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Finding the Best, Not the Best-Known, Colleges

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2004; 11:34 AM

Two years ago, as I was finishing a book debunking the myth of Ivy League academic superiority, it occurred to me that I wasn't offering any useful alternatives. I presented the research showing that ancient universities with big names don't add anything to their students lives that they cannot get elsewhere. It is the students' characters, forged before they ever got to college, that make them successful, not high ranks for their alma maters on the U.S. News & World Report list.

But if those famous schools are not such special places, where should high school seniors apply instead?

_____Related Stories_____
Gauging, and Improving, How Colleges Teach (The Washington Post, Nov 16, 2004)
_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at mathewsj@washpost.com.
_____Also in Class Struggle_____
A Chart Exposes High School Malpractice (washingtonpost.com, Nov 23, 2004)
Rating Teachers With AP: The Reaction (washingtonpost.com, Nov 11, 2004)
No SAT-isfaction (washingtonpost.com, Nov 7, 2004)

My answer in the book was a survey of high school guidance counselors and teachers who told me which unsung colleges their graduates raved about when they came home on holidays. I called this my hidden gems list. Many students and parents said it worked for them, and that made me happy. But the list had only the barest shreds of scientific validity, and I was hoping somebody would come up with something better.

That is beginning to happen, and in more than one way. The most advanced effort so far to identify schools by what they do for students, rather than how many applicants they reject, is the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), now completing its fifth year of existence on the campus of Indiana University.

On the Schools and Learning page of the Washington Post today I have a story about NSSE (pronounced nessie) and other organizations that are finding new ways to measure the quality of the learning experience at each school. Since this column, unlike my story in the newspaper, enjoys the versatility of the Internet, I can not only tell you here about schools that have undergone the NSSE assessment process, but also let you click on to those parts of their Web sites that show you their results.

NSSE has surveyed more than 620,000 undergraduates at more than 850 colleges and universities on an assortment of issues, mostly having to do with how much each school encourages students to involve themselves in what research shows to be the most productive and engaging kinds of learning. NSSE asks questions like: Did you work on a paper or project that required integrating ideas or information from various sources? Did you receive prompt feedback from faculty members on your academic performance? Did you ask questions in class or contribute to class discussions? Did you discuss ideas from your readings or classes with others outside of class?

Such inquiries produce different results than the surveys that ask what undergraduates' average SAT scores were, or what percent of applicants were accepted. The NSSE results show how each college does in each category of engagement, compared to the average for other colleges of similar size and character. It also shows how much more engaged each college's students become, on average, between their freshman and senior years.

The problem is that colleges will only administer the NSSE surveys if they reserve the right to keep the results secret. This is, to me, a significant weakness in the NSSE approach, but I guess I can't expect a college to accept a system that might force it to hang itself in public. So instead of decrying the large majority of NSSE schools who have not released their results, I am going to laud the few brave colleges -- NSSE send me a list of 95 -- that are allowing applicants and their families to see how well they are doing in teaching and engaging undergraduates.

Here is a list of the schools relatively close to the Washington area, plus a few more that are popular with applicants here, that have released some of their NSSE data. washingtonpost.com has linked the names to the relevant pages on the college's Web sites, using addresses NSSE gave me. The material presented varies considerably--some schools mention only the barest results while others present large sections and provide graphics. Very few report every NSSE number they have. This is annoying, but it is a start. If those of you who explore these links have time to tell me about the useful information you find, or deadends and nonsense, I would be grateful.

Here they are:

Longwood University
Lynchburg College
Virginia Commonwealth University
George Mason University
American University
St. Mary's College of Maryland
Towson University
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Hampden-Sydney College
Norfolk State University
Randolph-Macon Women's College
University of Virginia
Virginia Wesleyan College
Elon University
University of the South.

Not only is NSSE trying to coax more colleges to reveal their results, but its staff has done research that further dismembers the corpse of the notion that brand name schools are supreme in all things. George D. Kuh, the Indiana University professor who heads NSSE, and Ernest T. Pascarella, professor of higher education at the University of Iowa, reported in the September/October issue of Change magazine that high selectivity -- rejecting 70 to 90 percent of applicants as the Ivies do -- does not correlate with high ratings on the NSSE surveys.

"In one instance -- instructor feedback to students -- selectivity did explain 20 percent of the institution-level variance," Kuh and Pascarella said, "but the effect of selectivity was negative, meaning that the more selective the college the less frequently students got feedback from their teachers."

I suspect a few graduates of large and well-known universities will read this and nod in sad agreement. Many of us remember 400-student lecture courses and professors who were hard to find, even during office hours. "Attendance at a selective college or university in no way guarantees that students will be more likely to engage in effective educational practices than their counterparts at less selective schools," the Kuh and Pascarella report concluded.

So which schools are best at engaging students, and which are the worst? U.S. News & World Report should be congratulated for not only inspiring colleges (by driving them crazy with its rankings) to look for something deeper than its annual report, but for reporting some NSSE data for the few schools that will release their results on questions that U.S. News thinks its readers find interesting.

In effect, as the U.S. News folks are not shy about pointing out, they are providing the most useful comparative NSSE results in the country. Eventually more schools may be forced to cooperate, but that won't happen unless we ask them to. So check out the list above. If any of your favorite colleges are not telling you everything you want to know about themselves, ask them why not.

© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive


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