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And that’s the problem. How do you know what makes a college “good?” Are good colleges the ones where the good students go? After all, the colleges that admit only a small percentage of students with high GPAs and college test scores are the ones that show up at the top of the college rankings. But does that mean the school is good because it admits good students or do good students go there because it is a good college?
Yes, it’s a chicken and egg question.
Maybe looking at a different aspect of education might be helpful. Have you heard about something called “education reform” or “no child left behind?” The “declining” quality of public K-12 schools has everyone worried. High schools graduating less than 75% of their students are considered disgraceful, no matter if “good” or not so good students attend.
One reason that the schools often give for their poor performance is that public K-12 schools don’t get to pick their students.
- They can’t pick only those with a high GPAs.
- They can’t pick only those who have money to pay for private tutoring.
- They can’t pick only those whose parents have attended college.
- They can’t pick only students who took algebra in middle school.
(OK, guess what my Master’s Report was on–high school dropouts!)
But for the most part, colleges (four years and particularly private) can. Yet colleges are considered successful when just half to 60% of their students graduate in a six-year period for a four-year degree.
What Difference Does the College Make?
Despite paying over $70,000 a year for an increasing number of colleges, it is the students who are held responsible for their success or failure. Think about all of the books that tell the student how to succeed in college. Only recently as tuition and student debt have skyrocketed has the word “accountability” begun to be mentioned.
People are starting to wonder what the student gets for her $70,000.
Why do colleges with seemingly similar inputs such as student quality and faculty expenditures, vary by as much as 20 percentage points in graduation rates?
Why do some colleges with much lower “quality” inputs, produce just as many graduates as those more selective schools?
What obligation do colleges have in helping students getting to graduation?
Apparently, beyond picking the highest percentage of “good” students as possible, there doesn’t seem too much consensus about the role of the college in student success.
The Good Colleges Shadow
The few attempts to measure what happens to the students between entering college and graduating have limited participation by colleges and those participants often don’t release their individual results.
Finding good colleges sometimes reminds me of astronomers who identify celestial objects based on shadows they cast rather than actually seeing them. One example is the Higher Education Research Institute’s (HERI) expected graduation rate calculator. The user can enter student characteristics and the calculator will produce an estimated graduation rate. According HERI:
If an institution’s expected rate is lower than the actual, we interpret that as meaning the institution is moving students towards graduation. If the expected rate is higher than the actual rate, there may be some barriers that the institution has to examine that are keeping some students from graduating.
And there’s the shadow! Can we say good colleges have a higher than expected graduation rate? They are doing something that causes students to graduate at rates higher than that based just on student characteristics. In other words, the school is doing something to improve graduation rates. We just don’t know what.
So we’re back to rankings based on inputs and reputation.
Isn’t it strange that we demand specific results from our public schools but when we’re paying hundreds of thousands of dollars out of our own pocket we are content with reputation?
Does this mean I think that colleges should be evaluated like public schools are under no child left behind?
No. After all, I’m the one who homeschooled her son. I don’t believe in one size fits all.
We Need Information About the Colleges, Not Just the Students
But I do think more information should be readily available so that families can decide for themselves what’s the best value for their money.
You can find some of the information. John Palladino in Finding the College That’s Right for You! lists 15 college characteristics that families should consider in evaluating colleges. Some of these are readily available including graduation rates, total number of students, percentage of full-time faculty, percentage of faculty with doctorates, and student to faculty ratios (which are all available in the DIY College Rankings College Search Spreadsheet).
Of course, these still put most of the focus of the good colleges’ definition on the “inputs” but at least it’s not based on just the quality of the students.
You know what you’re bringing to your college education. Shouldn’t you know what the school is bringing for its part (and your money) and if they’re going to make any difference to you? Good colleges should help you move beyond your origins.
You need to know what a college offers besides a higher ranking in US News Best Colleges.
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