US survey exposes college problems

January 12, 2001

Frustrated by the growing influence of mass-market magazine rankings that serve as the league tables of American universities, higher education institutions in the United States have launched their own ratings.

The multi-million-dollar Nati-onal Survey of Student Engagement has had the unexpected result of exposing major weaknesses in the higher education system. The scores have been given to participating schools, but have yet to be made public.

The report, based on an in-depth poll of 63,000 students at 6 four-year universities, found that fewer than 15 per cent spend as much time studying outside of class as the schools require, that almost a fifth had never made a class presentation, and 46 per cent had never discussed academic topics with a faculty member outside of class.

"Most four-year colleges and universities have plenty of room to improve," said George Kuh, an Indiana University professor and director of the project, which was funded by a grant from two private foundations.

Universities were judged in five categories: level of academic challenge, amount of active and collaborative learning, student interaction with faculty, availability of enriching educational experiences and the campus environment. Only four schools, all private liberal arts colleges, scored in the top possible 20 per cent in all categories: Sweet Briar College in Virginia, Beloit College in Wisconsin, Elon College in North Carolina and Centre College in Kentucky.

The names of some universities, which were identified as "strong performers", were released, but researchers did not single out the best overall. That makes the survey little immediate threat to the US News and World Report "America's Best Colleges", which ranks each school in a listing that is watched closely by journalists, prospective students and alumni.

University officials complain that the US News rankings are unfair, encompassing such things as the size of endowments, which puts smaller schools at a disadvantage. They say the comparisons are gradually forcing them to reject promising applicants with low scores on entrance examinations. Schools are directing more of their scholarship budgets to attract high-achieving students - even some who do not need financial assistance.

"As with any first step, such surveys should improve with further development and continuing research," said Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching that helped pay for the report. "Meanwhile, they provide educational leaders and policy-makers with a perspective on the critical learning of college students."

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Universities in most nations are now obliged to prioritise graduate career prospects, but how it should be approached depends on your view of the meaning of education. Academics need to think that through much more clearly, says Tom Cutterham


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