Looking At ‘Top’ Schools? College Rankings Ignore Student Engagement, Study Finds

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — Students and parents, pay attention! A test will follow: When it comes time to make that all-important decision about which college to attend, which factors matter most? Should the school with the highest ranking automatically be your first choice or should other elements weigh in on your decision?

Research at Binghamton University has found that rankings tell prospective students very little about another huge component in choosing an institution of higher learning: student engagement. They say that student engagement, though not typically factored into rankings, is one of the most important considerations in getting a quality education.

Woman looking at book in library
Research at Binghamton University has found that rankings tell prospective students very little about another huge component in choosing an institution of higher learning: student engagement.

“Beyond a few isolated cases, ranking schemes are not related to overall student engagement, behaviors related to learning, collaboration and support,” says John Zilvinskis, an assistant professor of student affairs administration, in a university release.

Researchers pored over data from more than 80,000 students who attended 64 institutions of higher education. Students answering the surveys attended schools participating in the annual National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). The NSSE measures levels of student involvement in educationally purposeful activities that build up and advance student success.

The authors compared information from the NSSE with the score each institution received from three popular ranking methods: Forbes’ Top Colleges in the U.S., U.S. News & World Report National University Rankings and Washington Monthly’s National Universities Rankings. They found few links between the school’s ranking and the level of student engagement. In their paper, they wrote, “Our results demonstrate that, contrary to conventional wisdom, higher-ranked institutions do not necessarily provide a superior educational experience. In fact, educational quality, as indicated by engagement, seems to have little to do with institutional rank.”

Instead of finding parity between ranking and student engagement, researchers say they found that as the ranking of a college rose, there was a small, but consistent lowering of student/faculty interactions. This means that students attending higher-ranked colleges have less interaction with faculty.

“Consumers, prospective students and their families, should be wary of rankings,” warns Zilvinskis. “These measures are predicated mostly on the academic profile of first-year, full-time students, but could do more to describe the experience of students while they are in college.”

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Researchers say students, parents, school administrators and the media need to take a closer look at other factors besides institutional rankings to see the whole picture. They recommend doing a little more homework to figure out which activities the students are involved in while attending college.

In other words, there is more to getting an education than choosing the school with the highest ranking. Student involvement before and during the pursuit of a higher education has a huge impact on the end result. And everyone guiding these students could help them by studying the multiple factors involved.

“Institutions can do a better job of communicating the quality of experience to customers, instead of citing their rank,” Zilvinskis concludes.

The research was published in the winter 2018 edition of The Review of Higher Education.

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