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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

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

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."

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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.

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