Comparing Colleges: More Differences Within Them Than Between Them

November 17, 2008

A survey revealed that the quality of an undergraduate education varies more within colleges when comparing them than between colleges, making rankings misleading.

More than 90 percent of the variations in undergraduate colleges occurred within them, not between them, making them more different within institutions, the survey revealed. The survey was conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which was based on over 350,000 students who were randomly selected freshmen and seniors from over 700 four-year, U.S. colleges and universities.

“College-wide averages contain meaningful information and they can inform improvement initiatives, but limiting attention to them amounts to analyzing the tip of the iceberg,” said Alexander C. McCormick, NSSE director and associate professor of education at Indiana University. “We need to look at the rest of the iceberg. Even institutions with high average scores should identify and address their ‘pockets of disengagement.’ In addition, prospective students and their parents need to understand that a high ranking is no guarantee of high quality throughout the undergraduate experience.”


The survey measured:

1) Level of Academic Challenge
2) Active and Collaborative Learning
3) Student Faculty Interaction
4) Enriching Educational Experiences
5) Supportive Campus Environment.


Other key findings from the 2008 survey were:

  • Students taking most of their classes online report more deep approaches to learning in their classes, relative to classroom-based learners. Furthermore, a larger share of online learners reported very often participating in intellectually challenging course activities.
  • Seniors who entered as transfers lag behind their peers on several measures of engagement. They talked less frequently with faculty about their future plans, were less likely than their peers to work with their classmates on assignments outside of class, and fewer participated in co-curricular activities. On the other hand, they more frequently prepared multiple drafts of assignments.
  • Nearly a quarter of first-year students and one in five seniors reported that they frequently came to class without completing readings or assignments.


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