The 10 Secrets of America's Best Colleges

I’ve always been a nag about college rankings.

It’s unfortunate that the first yardstick that many families grab when they are measuring schools is the annual US college rankings by U.S. News & World Reports.

Simply whining about college rankings, however, isn’t very helpful, which is why I’m excited about a new report that was released today by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The report attempts to steer colleges and universities to adopt practices that will increase the odds that their students will succeed academically.

George D. Kuh, one of the higher ed universe’s brightest lights wrote the report. Kuh is the director of Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and a founder of the National Survey of Student Engagement. (I’d urge anyone who hasn’t visited the web site of NSSE to do so. You’ll learn a lot about the makings of a quality education there.)

In writing the report, Kuh wanted to answer the question that college administrators across the country have asked him the most:

What is the one thing we should do to increase student engagement and success on our campuses?

The best colleges provide a meaningful education to its students by offer what Kuh and others have called “high impact activities.” Here then are the 10 secrets to a great college education:

1) Student research with faculty.

2) Learning communities.

3) Internships.

4) Study abroad.

5) Service opportunities.

6) Senior capstone project and courses.

7) First-year seminars and experiences.

8) Writing-intensive courses.

9) Collaborative assignments and projects.

10) Common intellectual experiences.

What all these activities share in common is that they require a student to be really engaged in his or her education. For instance, if you’re involved in an internship or a senior capstone project, which requires you to call upon what you’ve learned in your major, you aren’t snoozing in the back row of a large lecture hall.

Ultimately, all these activities represent deeper approaches to learning.

The schools that are most likely to offer these high impact activities are typically liberal arts colleges with one notable exception.

Flagship universities offer more learning communities. The reason why learning communities are less popular with liberal arts colleges is because the aim of these communities is to make learning experiences more intimate for students and with smaller schools that is already more likely to happen.

You’ll learn more on learning communities in my next post.

If you’d like to see the report, you can purchase it from the web site of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she writes another college blog for CBSMoneyWatch.

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