To the Editor:
“Colleges’ Prestige Doesn’t Guarantee a Top-Flight Learning Experience,” (The Chronicle, November 28) is misleading in a number of ways. First, as your article points out, there is no common set of standards by which students from diverse colleges and universities can make judgments about the quality of teaching at their institutions, and there are no common standards with which to compare one college to another. The article shows that the freshman responses to the quality of teaching question seem to be mostly unaffected by the prestige, and hence the level of selectivity of these institutions. But the rankings actually suggest a hypothesis which is different than the one presented to readers, namely that students actually, more or less, end up in colleges that suit their level of ability, and that this goodness of fit may explain the levels of satisfaction reported in the study.
Some 40 percent of students at every level report that the quality of teaching they encounter is high, but what would this array of responses look like if students at noncompetitive colleges found themselves in classes in the most competitive institutions where the reading assignments are extensive, difficult, and frequent, where the level of abstraction is at its highest, where textbooks are hardly ever used, where professorial expectations are high, and where remedial work is almost nonexistent? Imagine the level of boredom and dissatisfaction that would be felt among students in the most competitive institutions if they somehow found themselves in noncompetitive colleges.
The work load in terms of hours spent studying, and the number of classroom exercises may be similar at most institutions at every level of selectivity and prestige, but it is the differential quality of teaching, and the level of difficulty that helps establish a school’s status, not mere hours that students spend studying. It is unclear what the National Survey of Student Engagement really means, but it is worth considering that because students find themselves in institutions suited to their abilities, motivation, and expectations, their professors scale their teaching to what they think is appropriate for their students. Consequently students rate the performance of their professors similarly in more selective institutions, as in less prestigious ones.
That student satisfaction with colleges does not seem to be affected by the prestige of institutions may be a good thing, especially in light of the financial costs, and the time spent getting degrees, but highly prestigious colleges function at a level of teaching and learning that justifies their status, and general surveys such as the National Survey of Student Engagement don’t measure this important variable.
Professor of Sociology