Association of American Colleges and Universities, January 2001

Greater Expectations National Panel, Briefing Paper #17

Considering College Quality

Ernest L. Boyer, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and former U.S. Commissioner of Education


    Boyer has written a concise guide to what is important for parents and students to consider when investigating which college or university to choose. By gathering information about support for learning ranging from institutional mission, to curriculum, to campus culture, prospective students can determine whether a college is a good match for their educational goals and needs.

After years of anticipating what college will be like, it may be easy for you to conjure up a picture of the perfect college—a campus filled with ivy-covered buildings, students socializing in the academic quad, or the faint sounds of a professor's voice coming from an open window. Despite this stereotypical picture of what college might look like on the surface, there is no single model of "the good college."

With college costs rising as they are, students and their parents want to be assured that they will get the best value from their college investment. It may help to know that despite all the differences among colleges, there are characteristics commonly shared among colleges of high quality that you should consider in your search for the right one.

Although these criteria can be used to evaluate any college, to be most effective you should first narrow your list and then put these questions to only the top five or ten schools on your final list.


Measures of Quality


1. A Clear Mission

Every college should be guided by a clear and vital mission. It should understand its unique role in higher education and present itself honestly to prospective students through its literature and other information outlets. A good measure of the strength of an institution is a well-defined focus and, beyond that, a clear indication that those goals have been turned into a living purpose for the campus.


Of course, you need to determine if a college's stated mission matches your own goals and values. At the very least, you need to know that you will be comfortable at a college and that it will deliver the type of educational experience you're seeking.


2. Attention to Students

The quality of an undergraduate college can also be measured by the extent of its cooperation with high schools and by its willingness to smooth the transition of students into college. The way you are recruited by a college helps to shape your expectations of that college. A good college conducts its recruitment and selection with the best interests of the students in mind and should, therefore, try to learn more about you than simply your test scores and class rank.

Beyond the admissions process, it is important for a college to continue to demonstrate commitment to you by taking steps to make you feel at home. The first few weeks on campus are a major rite of passage and may have a significant influence on your entire undergraduate experience. In short, you will want to determine whether the freshman year is viewed as something special and whether the college has a well-planned orientation program that addresses the particular concerns of the new student.


Since students need guidance throughout their entire education, a college of quality has a year-round program of academic advising and personal counseling, structured to serve all undergraduates, including part-time and commuting students. You will want to find out if the faculty is available to freshmen to talk about their disciplines and whether they give guidance on career choices. A college worthy of commendation works as hard at holding students as it does at getting them to the campus in the first place. You may wish to investigate a college's retention rate over the past five years and find out whether or not it offers guidance programs for students who are having trouble. These are all measures of a college's dedication to its students.


3. A Planned, Yet Flexible, Curriculum

At a good college, the academic major will broaden rather than restrict the perspective of the student. The major should not only allow you to explore a subject in depth but should also put such study in perspective, presenting, in effect, an enriched major. An enriched major will answer three essential questions: What are the history and traditions of the field to be examined? What are the social and economic implications to be pursued? What are the ethical and moral issues within the specialty that need to be confronted? Rather than dividing the undergraduate experience into separate camps—general versus specialized education—the curriculum at a college of high quality will bring the two together. Therefore, it is important to determine if the college has a coherent general education sequence—an integrated core—rather than a more loosely connected distribution arrangement. This core academic program should provide not only for an integration of separate academic principles but also for their application and relation to life.


4. The Classroom Climate

The undergraduate experience, at its best, should encourage students to be active rather than passive learners. In measuring the quality of a college, you should ask if the institution has a climate that stimulates independent, self-directed study, where teaching is perceived as more than just lecturing. If a college encourages small discussion sessions in which students work together on group assignments, it may indicate dedication to the undergraduate curriculum. In addition, if undergraduate courses are taught by the most respected and most gifted teachers on campus, it speaks further to this commitment.


Indeed, the strength of the faculty plays a leading role in determining the quality of the undergraduate experience. Students and parents have become increasingly concerned with the balance of time that faculty members spend on research and publishing requirements versus teaching and advising. To uncover how an institution views this balance, you should ask if good teaching is valued equally with research and if it is an important criterion for tenure and promotion. It's important to know if the college recognizes that some faculty members are great teachers, others great researchers, and still others a blend of both. The central qualities that make a successful teacher are simple: command of the material to be taught, a contagious enthusiasm for the play of ideas, optimism about the potential of one's students, and—not least—sensitivity, integrity, and warmth as a human being. Look for these qualities when you visit colleges.


5. Devoting Resources to Learning

An institution of high quality is one that supports its mission of learning both financially and philosophically. In doing so, a college should allot ample funds to its library and other educational resources. For instance, a good college should devote a minimum of 5 percent of its total operating budget to funding its library, which is often called the "heart" of the college. In terms of its use, you should determine if the library is more than just a study hall and if students are encouraged to spend at least as much time with library resources as they spend in classes. These resources should primarily serve the interests of undergraduate research and not be dominated by narrow scholarly interests of faculty members or graduate students.


Today technology also offers great potential for learning on campus. Some colleges now require that you purchase a computer before coming to campus. Others simply make terminals available to all students in common areas. Particularly if you are looking to advance in computer-related fields, or if you are inclined toward furthering your computer skills, you will want to know if campus terminals are linked to wider networks (including the Internet) and if the college connects labs, dorms, the library, and classrooms.


6. The Campus Culture

A college campus is also a community. A college of high quality will work to make the time spent outside of the classroom as meaningful as the time spent in class. The high-quality college sees academic and nonacademic functions as related and arranges events that support a concern for issues and stimulate productive debate. Campuswide activities, intended for both faculty and students, should encourage a sense of community, sustain college traditions, and stimulate both social and cultural interaction. Only with such underlying goals can a campus be considered united by more than routine requirements and procedures. Check also whether faculty members are routinely present at social or extracurricular functions. It is also a good idea to find out if residence halls seem to promote a sense of community through organized activities and informal learning.


A Final Word of Advice

In the end, a high-quality college is concerned about outcomes. It asks questions about student development that go beyond the evaluation of skill. A good college will focus on being sure that their students can think clearly, are well informed, are able to integrate their knowledge, and can apply what they have learned.


The impact of college extends beyond graduation, and a college of quality will provide placement guidance to its students and follow their careers. Students at such a college will be well-equipped to put their work in context and adequately prepared to move from one intellectual challenge to another. The undergraduate experience should prepare students to see beyond the narrow boundaries of their own interests and discover global connections. A college succeeds as its graduates are inspired by a larger vision, using the knowledge they have acquired to form values and advance the common good.


When you make your college contacts and campus visits, ask the right questions and look beneath the surface to make an informed decision. Remember one final thing: a college of high quality will prepare you for a productive career and at the same time will help you develop and refine important values and principles that you can apply beyond graduation day.

Reprinted with permission of Peterson's, a division of Thomson Learning
Fax 800-730-2215. From Peterson's Guide to Four-Year Colleges 1996.
Copyright 1996 Peterson's