Higher College Ranking, Better Education?

As juniors begin the college search, a question often arises as to the quality of the college/university that they’re considering.  “I know that this school has a really high ranking in U.S. News & World Report,” they think, “but how do I know if it will be a good academic experience for me?”

How can I be sure that a prestigious (and expensive) school will provide me with an excellent education?

A presentation at the Association of American Colleges and Universities based on research published by the Wabash College found that the money a college spends on education does not always result in a higher quality education.  Instead, some colleges with higher student-faculty ratios and more part-time faculty members may actually be educating students better than prestigious colleges that boast a low student-faculty ratio and more full-time professors (“Not Getting What You Paid For”).

Moreover, Bill Gates has expressed his reservations of ranking systems that seem to do anything but evaluate a school’s ability to educate its students.  According to Gates, the ranking system rewards a school’s ability to attract students rather than educate them.  Rather than point students to the best educational experience, ranking systems can actually do the opposite.  “I bet there are community colleges and other colleges that do a good job in that area, but US News & World Report rankings pushes you away from that,” says Gates (“Bill Gates Says There Is Something Perverse In College Ratings”).

This information begs the question: How, then, can I know if a school will provide me with an excellent education?

Admittedly, there is more to college selection than education.  Strength of alumni networks, campus culture, extracurriculars, location, and price should all factor into your decision, too.  However, if you want to know how to evaluate the quality of the classes you’ll attend, where should you begin?

Every school has its brilliant and inspiring professors and its average professors.  Quality education can differ across campuses, departments, and even classrooms.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to accurately evaluate an entire college’s faculty and rank that college’s quality of teaching against other colleges.

Some schools, though, create structures that attract great teachers and encourage them to stay:

  • Ask about how students evaluate classes and professors each semester and how important those evaluations are for the school.
  • Inquire into the tenuring process for professors.  How does the school go about deciding to bring on a professor for life?
  • Ask about the typical course load a professor will have each semester.  The fewer the classes, the more invested he/she usually is in the subject and the students.

You can also look up specific professors in a course of study that interests you.  Go to ratemyprofessors.com to see what actual students have said about that professor.  You can find all of the professors in a department at a given school and evaluate their average scores.  You’ll want to make sure your major’s department at a school has its fair share of awesome professors.  Keep in mind, though, that students are evaluating these professors, and their scores may not accurately reflect the teacher’s actual ability.

Although determining a college’s quality of education means some additional homework on your part, it’s well worth the effort.  Not only will you be able to evaluate a college based on one of its most important entities, professors, but you’ll be in a great position when deciding which classes to take for your fall semester.





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