Last week, US News released the annual rankings for liberal arts institutions. It also released a bunch of other rankings, including “Best Undergraduate Teaching.” “Wait,” you may be thinking, “How different can the best liberal arts schools and the best liberal arts schools for undergraduate teaching be?” The answer is, “More different than you would think.”
You may recall that the overall rankings for national liberal arts institutions are strongly correlated with endowments. Apparently, the things that make a school good at teaching in the eyes of US News differ from those that make a school good overall. Interestingly, the methodology for determining best teaching is similar to that for determining the best graduate programs. Namely, they ask people about their perceptions: “College presidents, provosts and admissions deans who participated in the annual U.S. News peer assessment survey were asked to nominate up to 10 schools in their Best Colleges ranking category with a strength in undergraduate teaching.”
Like the graduate school rankings, then, the undergraduate teaching rankings reflect others’ perceptions rather than a formula that schools might try to game. It turns out that, unlike the national liberal arts rankings, these perceptions are not strongly correlated with a school’s endowment (only .226 vs. .78 for the national rankings). Although there are similarities, some schools are rated much differently in the rankings for undergraduate teaching. Hendrix College has the largest difference between its overall ranking (82) and its teaching ranking (29). Other schools that are at least 40 spots higher in the teaching than overall rankings include: Beloit, Wheaton, St. Olaf, Lawrence, Berea, and Wooster.
Of the schools appearing on both lists, Bowdoin looks the worst, with its overall ranking of 4 and its teaching ranking of 29. Many high-ranking schools in the overall rankings, though, don’t appear on the list of the top 30 teaching schools at all. Eleven schools in the top 30 national rankings do not appear in the top teaching rankings, the highest-ranked of which are the US Naval Academy and Claremont McKenna, tied for 9th in the national rankings.
The takeaway from all of this seems to be that a school’s reputation for teaching is not nearly as dependent on financial wealth as its overall rankings. I think that the different methodologies for different rankings are also interesting, since graduate programs are essentially ranked by those in similar programs, who would seem to know best. Undergraduate teaching is ranked in the same way, but US News is not willing to allow these peer-nominated rankings to make up its most publicized rankings like it is for graduate programs.
Of course, both types of rankings are probably connected only tenuously to actual student experiences at various schools, but by publicizing their overall rankings, US News ensures that they will keep schools focused on the small things they can do to try to climb the rankings, while an emphasis on the perceptions of others may allow schools to shift their foci to the bigger picture, considering what is best for students instead of for US News.
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