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The Administrator-Student Disconnect

Legend has it that six score and eight years ago, railroad baron William Vanderbilt said, “The public be damned.” That thought came back to me as I perused the information displayed on an interesting new (to me at least) Web site, MyPlan.com. Students evaluate some 592 schools on a variety of criteria, including a “bottom line” question 15 that asks student to indicate their overall satisfacation with their school. If, as McDonald’s, Coca Cola and Apple Computer so clearly demonstrate, having satisfied customers is key to business success, you might expect the nation’s “best” colleges to be the ones where students are, roughly speaking, the happiest.

It is interesting to compare the perceptions of college and university leaders of the “best” colleges, as indicated on the peer-assessment component of the 2009 US News & World Report rankings with student perceptions of what schools they like the most. For several schools that school administrators love—Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins are great examples—students show, at best, so-so feelings. Yet other schools—Wake Forest, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Notre Dame, are standout examples—are ranked so-so at best in the peer assessment with college administrators, but very highly in terms of student satisfaction. Among flagship state universities, the students love Penn State, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Florida vastly more than the adult “experts,” who, in turn like the Universities of Michigan and Illinois far more than their students do.

If you look at overall student satisfaction independent of school size, Carnegie classification, etc., the top schools are a distinctly different list than what the college administrators believe. The list of the top 10 is below:

1. Ohio University

2. Williams College

3. Elon University

4. Stanford University

5. Notre Dame

6. Smith College

7. Appalachian State University

8. Carleton College

9. Vassar College

10. Yale University

To put it mildly, top-ranked Ohio University, third-ranked Elon University, and seventh-ranked Appalachian State University do not rank particularly highly in the peer assessment by US News. As a professor at Ohio U. who has been on the faculty at several higher US News ranked schools (e.g., Washington University in St. Louis, Claremont McKenna College), I sense the MyPlan rankings are roughly accurate. I think students at Ohio University, for example, are more satisfied than ones attending my much more peer-acceptable alma mater, Northwestern. To be sure, some schools (e.g. Stanford, Yale, and Williams College) rank highly with both groups, but the differences are more glaring than the similarities.

Usually top (or nearly top) ranked Princeton does not make the top 50 on the MyPlan list, and Washington U. in St. Louis, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and Northwestern don’t make the top 150, or quartile, of schools examined. Kids at Northwest Missouri State University seem more satisfied with their schooling than kids at Duke, for example.

The objections to all of this will go along the following lines:

1. This is a crummy, unscientific assessment, based on relatively few student evaluations (in all the cases above, however, a minimum of 10 students offerred their opinion).

2. Undergraduate education is a relatively small part of what determines greatness and excellence, at least in the larger research universities.

3. Popularity and excellence are different concepts. A school can be popular even while it snubs the academic verities.

There is some truth to all of those assertions.

Yet students and their parents write large checks that fund a significant part of activities at most of these schools. State subsidies are largely rationalized on grounds of increasing access and economic opportunity. And, let’s face it, there is a consumption or socialization dimension of higher education that for many is at least as important as the academic. University administrators view the satisfaction of their undergraduate customers with a good bit of indifference at many schools. Schools like my own Ohio University and Appalachian State, which offer a highly satisfying experience at a relatively low price, deserve more kudos than what they’re given by the academic administrators who have never visited most of the campuses they rank.

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