Indicators of Quality in Higher Education

As the U.S. News & World Report college rankings were released last week, NPR Ed noted, “Besides U.S. NewsWashington Monthly magazine has put out an extensive set of rankings for the past 11 years. There are also rankings in Money and Forbes, plus published guides by Princeton Review, Barron’s, the Fiske Guide to Colleges, and The College Board.” But as NPR also pointed out, “Each of these ratings systems and guides has its own particular recipe,” so “the first step may be choosing which rankings or reviews to trust.”

Despite their seeming arbitrariness, college ranking publications persist because consumers have become more wary about the college purchase. This year, Public Agenda found only 42% of Americans agree that college is necessary for workforce success (down from 55% in 2009). And Americans are almost evenly split on whether they feel “a college education is still the best investment for people who want to get ahead and succeed” or “a college education is a questionable investment because of high student loans and limited job opportunities.” So today’s price-sensitive prospective students and their families are actively engaged in assessing the worth of a college’s value proposition.

In addition to the cost and resulting outcomes, one of the main factors students and families examine in order to calculate value is the quality of the educational experience. And for better or worse, they rely on rankings to measure quality. Yet an institution’s ranking in some of the most popular publications, like U.S. News & World Report, is largely correlated with widespread name-brand recognition and selective admissions policies. So institutions that cannot compete on those terms must offer alternate measures of their quality—especially if they have a high published price, which signals they ought to be high quality.

To aid in efforts to measure quality, professional organizations like the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) and education research institutes like The Center for Postsecondary Research (which administers the National Survey of Student Engagement, aka NSSE) and The Center of Inquiry at Wabash College (which administers the National Study of Liberal Arts Education) are identifying desired outcomes and tracing the high-impact practices that lead to those outcomes. At this summer’s Liberal Arts Illuminated conference, research reports from AAC&U, NSSE, and the Wabash Center made it apparent that high quality education is not dependent on whether an institution is large or small, public or private. Rather, it matters most that students consistently receive clear, well-organized instruction and participate in deep approaches to learning.

So the challenge for colleges that successfully deliver (a) personalized attention from professors who care about teaching as much as research and (b) abundant experiential learning opportunities is to convert these two items into proxies for quality in the minds of prospective students and families.


Ranking the Rankings

NPR Ed examines the strengths and weaknesses of the criteria used by publications like U.S. News to rate colleges. (NPR)

Perceptions of Value 

46% of Americans say college is a questionable investment because of high student loans and limited job opportunities. (Public Agenda)

Delivering Quality

Research suggests two keys to quality education: clear, well-organized instruction and deep approaches to learning. (Liberal Arts Illuminated)


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Admissions professionals are in the midst of another recruitment season that will no doubt be full of even more demands to articulate a compelling value proposition for their college or university. The opportunity for early filing of the FAFSA is likely to increase families’ due diligence during an extended decision period for comparison shopping.

While the college ranking publications may prompt consideration of an institution, to a certain extent they simply deliver hearsay. From that point the institution must take charge of its own value narrative, because selection is informed by proof and evidence of particular educational experiences leading to specific results.