Letter: Maclean’s rankings flawed

Editor, the Gauntlet,

[Re: “U of C at bottom of barrel,” Emily Senger, June 22, 2006]

I am dismayed that Maclean’s used a few results from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) in its rankings of Canadian universities. NSSE always eschewed this idea, posting the reasons why on its website (http://nsse.iub.edu/html/usingst.cfm). Rankings are inherently flawed because they reduce complex dimensions of university life to a single number. Ranking Canadian institutions is especially problematic because they have different missions, offer different majors, and enroll different mixes of younger and older full-time and part-time students and transfers. These many other features affect student engagement and make it possible for institutions to offer different, yet rich, nuanced and meaningful educational experiences for their students.

Rankings may sell magazines but they do little to help the public understand what makes for a high-quality undergraduate experience. Rankings also have the potential to discourage universities from serious efforts to discover what their students are doing and learning, and then using this information to improve. By forcing universities to release their student engagement results before institutions have had a fair opportunity to understand and use the data to get better may mean some schools will forgo using NSSE or other assessment tools in the future. That outcome would be an ironic tragedy, contrary to the public interest.

Public disclosure is good, and we need more of it. Indeed, NSSE strongly encourages individual institutions to make available their student engagement results so that over time prospective students and others will become better informed about what to look for when choosing a university and the kinds of educational activities that matter to their learning. But estimates of university quality must be based on more information than rankings based primarily on student satisfaction indicators.

George D. Kuh,

chancellor’s professor and director,

National Survey of Student Engagement

Indiana University, Bloomington

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