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A College’s High Ranking Often Means Less Time With Professors

Report: “Revisiting the Relationship Between Institutional Rank and Student Engagement”

Authors: John D. Zilvinskis, research project associate, and Louis Rocconi, assistant scientist, both at Indiana University at Bloomington’s Center for Postsecondary Research

Summary: The researchers sought to determine what, if any, relationship existed between student engagement at any given college and how highly that institution was ranked by U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, or Washington Monthly. Their study examined data on more than 80,000 freshmen and seniors at 64 colleges ranked by each of the three magazines in 2013. The student data came from that spring’s administration of the National Survey of Student Engagement, or “Nessie,” which annually asks students a raft of questions about their campus experiences and their interactions with students, faculty members, and administrative staff members.

The researchers compared colleges’ rankings and Nessie results using a formula that took into account differences in the characteristics of institutions and students. They were scheduled to present their findings on Friday, at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association.

A paper summarizing their findings says their analysis, for the most part, found no connection between a college’s rankings and various measures of the engagement of its students. One association the researchers did find was negative: the lower a college’s ranking by the three magazines, the more frequently its faculty members reportedly interacted with students. A higher Washington Monthly ranking was associated, in seniors’ responses to the Nessie survey, with a less-supportive environment but higher levels of interaction with other students from diverse backgrounds.

The researchers, who are from the center that administers the Nessie survey, caution in their paper that rankings schemes’ lack of attention to learning and engagement “lead to behaviors on behalf of both institutions and students that value prestige over quality.” Their center reached similar conclusions about a disconnect between institutional prestige and educational quality in its latest report on Nessie’s results.

Bottom Line: Widely read rankings of the nation’s colleges are poor measures of student engagement and may create the wrong impression when it comes to the quality of faculty-student interactions at ranked institutions.

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