Measuring the Worth of a College

Some things about college are easy to measure.
It’s easy to determine the win-loss record of the football or basketball teams. It’s easy to find out how many kids graduate in four years. (Nationally only about 35% pull this off.) It’s easy to determine if the campus is pretty or if the dorm food sucks.
It’s awfully hard, however, to determine if a school is doing a great job handling its No. 1 responsibility — educating its students.  How can you tell if the graduates at a particular college have improved in their ability to think critically? Are they better writers? Can they comfortably stand in front of a room and give a facile presentation? Can they solve problems?
Research suggests that many students who earn diplomas today can’t say “yes” to any of those questions. These students have coasted their way to a diploma and their schools are accomplices. I wrote about this phenomenon earlier this year:

Do Undergrads Learn Much in College?

There are some internal ways that schools measure if students are getting their money’s worth in the classroom. For instance, many schools administer a test called the Critical Learning Assessment, which measures progress (or lack of it) in such areas as critical thinking, reasoning and writing. But good luck prying the results from schools.
I once talked to a department chair at a prestigious research university, who said he buried the CLA results for students in his department when the results were miserable. A yearly survey called the National Survey of Student Engagement, which annually surveys students at hundreds of colleges and universities about their academic activities, might also be helpful, but the schools with lousy results hide these too.
Richard Vedder, a prominent economist and the director of The Center for College Affordability & Productivity, points out in a Chronicle of Higher Education article that it would be possible for the IRS to provide average earnings at individual schools for students who graduated after one, five and 10 years. Wouldn’t that be helpful?

It’s College Ranking Season

Without proof of how well the academic machinery is operating, families naturally gravitate to the rankings. The reason I am bringing this up is because this is rankings season.
Princeton Review released its rankings last week. If you didn’t hear what this year’s No. 1 party school is — it’s Ohio University. Whoopee! I wrote a post last year about what I think of Princeton Review’s rankings. Here it is:

College Rankings: Should We Care?

Washington Monthly and US News & World Report will release their rankings next month. Forbes released its list last week.
I’ll be writing more about rankings soon, but I’ll just leave you with this thought. I think it’s reckless for teenagers to pick colleges without giving thought to whether these institution will provide them with a decent enough education. And unfortunately this happens all the time.
Have any thoughts about rankings or researching colleges? Love to hear from you. Just use the comment box below.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes college blogs for CBSMoneyWatch and US News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter.

Read More on The College Solution:

The No. 1 Reason Why College Rankings Are Lame
5 Tips on Choosing a College Major
Why Not Major in Philosophy?
Stressing About College Majors

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