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Correction to This Article
This article about the National Survey of Student Engagement, which is used by some colleges as a counterpoint to the rankings issued by U.S. News & World Report magazine, misstated the name of another organization that grades colleges. It is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, not the Association of College Trustees and Alumni.
Student survey boosts colleges overshadowed by U.S. News & World Report list

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; B01

In the game of collegiate rankings, Loyola University Maryland is a perennial backbencher, tucked away on an inside page of the annual U.S. News & World Report list of "America's Best Colleges."

But on the National Survey of Student Engagement, Loyola is a strong performer. It rates highly on measures such as academic challenge and student-faculty interaction.

"The students are definitely the number one priority," said Dan Nieves, 21, a Loyola senior from Merrick, N.Y. He learned of the university not from a newsmagazine but from some friends who had matriculated there and "had nothing but good things to say about it."

The U.S. News ranking and its imitators generally reward the same group of wealthy and selective institutions. There is little room at the top, and thousands of colleges do not make the list. And that has frustrated and angered many university administrators, who resent it when their school is reduced to one (poor) number.

The student engagement survey, abbreviated NSSE or "Nessie," is higher education's response.

Introduced 10 years ago by Indiana University researchers as an antidote to U.S. News, the survey has won buy-in from 1,400 colleges, with about half that number participating each year. Rather than rank colleges on overall quality, it attempts to quantify whether students at a particular school are learning, through a battery of questions: How often do you raise your hand in class? How many 20-page papers have you written? How often do you e-mail a professor? Each college is measured against similar institutions, and over time. But there is no overall ranking.

Measuring the experience

Marc Camille, vice president for enrollment management and communications at Loyola, says he thinks the student engagement survey is "the best attempt at a paradigm shift" since the dawn of college rankings three decades ago. "I don't think there's anything else out there that's a better measure of the student experience."

Twenty-seven years since the publication of the first U.S. News rankings, academe is awash in alternatives. There are rankings by Forbes, Kiplinger, College Prowler and Princeton Review; international rankings from Britain and China; and many purportedly new and better measures that sort colleges on everything from student course evaluations to the number of hits on a school's Web site.

There is also a new generation of accountability systems, mostly from within the higher education industry, that quantify colleges without ranking them. There is Colleges That Change Lives, a book and nonprofit organization created to promote a few dozen colleges buried in the U.S. News rankings. Another recent entry, from the Association of College Trustees and Alumni, grades colleges on required courses. (Harvard gets a D.)

The student engagement survey might be the most respected industry response to the rankings. Yet, it remains virtually unknown outside academia, and it is of limited use to the public. That's because the Nessie database is proprietary.

"It became clear fairly early on in the project that schools were not going to go along with it if their information was going to be put out in the public," said Alexander McCormick, the survey's director. "We operate in a climate right now of huge sensitivity toward comparisons of colleges and universities."

So, survey results at many participating schools remain private, although some colleges promote their results. USA Today offers a searchable database of schools willing to share their data.

"It'd be a great tool if all the 700 colleges actually made their Nessie survey data public," said Bob Morse, director of data research at U.S. News.

Raising their profiles

Morse notes that the magazine's report has "made a lot of schools visible" with its ever-expanding dossier of rankings. George Mason University in Virginia and the University of Maryland Baltimore County, for example, have profited from prominence on a U.S. News list of collegiate up-and-comers.

Loyola, in Baltimore, ranks third in U.S. News -- but in a comparatively obscure category of regional universities offering master's degrees.

Few students know Loyola's scores on the student engagement survey. The school rates higher than average for its institutional class on each of five student-learning benchmarks. Enriching educational experiences? Two-thirds of students study abroad. Student-faculty interaction? No class is led by a teaching assistant.

The Rev. Brian Linnane, president of Loyola since 2005, said that when he reads the U.S. News rankings, "generally I think, what I need to improve in those rankings is money."

And the student engagement survey? "We really sink into it," he said.

The survey has limitations -- and critics. Thirty-one of the nation's most selective schools do their own quality-assessment surveys through the Consortium on Financing Higher Education. A school such as Pomona College, ranked sixth by U.S. News, will find its competitors there, and not in the student engagement database, said David Oxtoby, president of Pomona.

Oxtoby wonders, too, about the value of asking students to rate their own colleges. A high score for a less selective college might reflect the bias of a student who "comes to a place with low expectations, and the school exceeds them," he said.

McCormick, the survey director, says questions chosen for the four-page survey "come from a pretty long line of research" on how students acquire knowledge in college. Although McCormick welcomes efforts to make the survey public, the database remains primarily an internal tool for colleges looking to improve.

The president of Lynchburg College in Virginia credits the engagement survey with driving several reforms in recent years.

To boost student-faculty interaction, Lynchburg introduced new study-abroad programs led by professors, raising the share of students who participate from 4 percent to 25 percent in six years. The school revamped academic tutoring to embed support in the most difficult classes, said Mari Normyle, assistant dean for academic and career services. Lynchburg, like Loyola, has strong marks on the engagement survey.

"It doesn't matter to us the pedigree of the students coming in," said Kenneth Garren, president of Lynchburg. "What matters to us is what we do when we get them."

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