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A better way to evaluate colleges

Editorial in the August 19, 2005, issue of Inside Higher Ed.

Today, U.S. News & World Report will once again come out with its annual college rankings. Having worked as a college administrator my entire professional life, I often get questions about the usefulness of such rankings in the search process.

While rankings such as those published by U.S. News and World Report offer some useful data, I have developed a different set of five simple criteria or considerations for evaluating the value and for choosing one of the best educational experiences offered by our country’s 600 liberal arts colleges. Were I to provide counsel to parents of students interested in attending one of these colleges — or to educators wondering how their institutions are doing — here are five lines of questioning I’d suggest they pursue:

1. Has the institution’s faculty been granted a Phi Beta Kappa chapter? Founded in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest and strongest academic honor society. Only those colleges or universities that meet the most rigorous academic standards are granted chapters. Criteria for membership include the number of volumes in the library, the number of faculty members who hold terminal (doctorate) degrees, and the number of faculty members who are members of Phi Beta Kappa. Membership in Phi Beta Kappa is an icon for maintaining a faculty of high caliber. Of the more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, only 270-7 percent — have been granted Phi Beta Kappa chapters. Other measures of academic quality include accreditations by national organizations, honors and awards received by faculty, and participation of students in undergraduate research and related regional and national competitions.

2. Has the college or university earned a favorable rating (A or better) by Moody’s Investors Service or another rating service such as Standard and Poor’s? Moody’s rates bonds issued to finance capital projects. Each series of bonds carries a different rating, but taken in aggregate, the bond ratings provide a meaningful and important gauge of institutional health. No institution can get an A or better rating if it does not have a history of balanced budgets. In Texas, for example, only five of our private colleges have an A or better rating from Moody’s as of June 2005. Bond ratings show financial strength in the way Phi Beta Kappa membership shows an institution’s academic strength. A good bond rating is an indication that an institution has the funding to sustain important academic programs. Other measures of financial health include the annual National Association of College and University Business Officers Endowment Survey and the college’s annual report, which should include a financial statement that shows expenditures for instruction, library and technology, scholarship, maintenance and construction as well as income from tuition, endowment, and gifts and grants.

3. Do graduates of the college earn predominantly Bachelor of Arts degrees? Bachelor of Arts degrees, which often require mastery of a foreign language, are the “union cards” for people who truly pursue undergraduate study in the liberal arts. Generally, it can be said that the higher the ratio of B.A. degrees to pre-professional degrees such as the B.B.A., the greater the college or university’s commitment to teaching. At the strongest liberal arts colleges and universities, at least 75 percent of the degrees awarded each year are B.A.’s as opposed to pre-professional degrees.

4. What percentage of students resides on campus? Living on campus is an important component of a student’s education, as it helps develop a sense of community and civic duty and provides a more complete living and learning environment. Campus residency leads students to participate in campus organizations where they learn valuable leadership and teamwork skills. Ideally, 80 percent or more of a campus’s full-time undergraduates should reside on campus to ensure a vibrant collegiate experience.

5. How diverse is the campus community? Diversity comes in many forms: racial/ethnic, gender, socio/economic, age, geographic, to name a few. A hallmark of a broad-based undergraduate education is consideration of a variety of perspectives based on the different experiences of diverse students and faculty. This type of rich and vibrant dialogue proves invaluable in students’ future professional, civic and personal lives. As a threshold, campus communities of students, faculty and staff should include 20 percent or more who represent populations other than its dominant majority.

I’m not saying that we should throw out rankings such as those compiled by U.S. News. An unfortunate characteristic of our society is that we always want to know who is No. 1 - whether it be in the classroom or on the football field. But the problem with rankings is that they encourage institutions that are uniquely different to change their programs in an attempt to improve their rankings. This doesn’t make sense for institutions that have specific missions that do not complement the rankings game.

For students who want to choose a great liberal arts college, I believe the above five questions are the ones that should be asked. You won’t find a college in America that meets these criteria and isn’t a great liberal arts college.Jake B. Schrum is president of Southwestern University, in Georgetown, Tex.