Elite Schools Aren’t Measuring Up in Terms of Quality

Posted By Eliana Osborn on December 3, 2015 at 2:01 pm
Elite Schools Aren’t Measuring Up in Terms of Quality

Big name schools cost a lot of money, but they must be providing something for that hefty bill.  At least, that is what parents and students have long believed.  But new research by Teachers College of Columbia University and Yeshiva University finds that this common assumption may be false.

At the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, researchers presented their study findings and explained how they came to their conclusions.  The yet unpublished paper is titled “The Mirage of Prestige: The educational quality of courses in prestigious and non-prestigious institutions.”

More than 600 classes at nine colleges and universities were observed by faculty members.  The schools varied in level of prestige and all were judged on academic rigor and teaching quality.  A rubric was used for ratings and observers were given extensive training on how to use it.

According to Inside Higher Ed, “they found that on only one of the five measures–cognitive complexity of the course work–did the elite colleges in the study outperform the non-elite institutions.”  In two areas—instructor subject matter knowledge and standards of coursework—there was no difference between the three levels prestige.

In two measurements, low prestige schools rated higher than the elite ones – instructors surfacing prior knowledge and instructors supporting changes in student views.

The researchers say their results were unexpected.  “This is particularly surprising given the substantial variation in prestige across institutions included in this study: low-prestige institutions were largely unranked and broad access, while the high-prestige institutions were national institutions, highly ranked and highly selective.”

What makes certain schools more elite?  It seems it is a self-perpetuating cycle, where they are perceived well at one point and then continually ranked high because many students apply and the college appears selective.  This new research shows the actual quality of instruction may have nothing to do with classification; instead, factors such as prominence of graduates, finances, and others come into play.

While the “Mirage” research is subject to interpretation, it provides an additional perspective on how students should choose where to attend college.  As student learning outcomes have increasingly become the focus of higher education reform, no longer can schools hide behind their name and past performance.  This era in higher education calls for increased transparency about graduation rates and future employment.

In a recent survey, only half of college graduates think it was worth the price.  So for the higher price tag at elite colleges, the equation may no longer make sense for many students.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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