Should you use college rankings to pick a good school? Here's a critical factor they miss.

·4 min read

It's a joyful and stressful time of year for students and their families as they make decisions about where to attend college. Families often turn to rankings systems to help make a decision, but the rankings ignore a critical factor: the quality of college teaching.

As a scholar of higher education, when I talk to families, they are often surprised that teaching excellence is not counted in rankings. They’re even more surprised to learn how teaching quality is undervalued by universities.

Emerging research suggests that courses in lower-ranked universities, on average, scored higher on student-centered teaching than courses in higher-ranked universities. In fact, universities aiming to improve their ranking will often shift emphasis and funding away from teaching toward other reputation-building factors such as marketing.

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Good teaching and student success are closely linked

The absence of teaching excellence from the rankings is surprising given the link between high-quality teaching and student success. Quality teaching is one of the most important predictors of a wide range of college outcomes, including academic skills, leadership, civic engagement, moral development, degree attainment and employment.

In short, quality teaching is crucial in shaping the individual and societal benefits of college.

Rankings, however, are only one reason why a low value is placed on teaching in higher education. Administrators often don't view teaching excellence as a way to increase enrollment or funding, so it's not highly valued in hiring, tenure or promotion.

And the kicker, research shows that the more time faculty spend on teaching, the lower their salary. Instructors who care the most about teaching often have less job stability and are in universities with fewer resources.

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What is the result? Many instructors continue to teach using traditional lectures, which yield lower and less equitable success rates.

Although efforts to improve teaching at the university level have recently emerged, not much will change until schools that value high-quality teaching are rewarded with more resources, higher rankings and increased enrollments.

Questions families should ask about colleges

What should families do? They should give strong consideration to universities where high-quality teaching is valued, even though the schools may be ranked lower.

As a parent of three children, I know the kinds of questions I'll ask when we visit college campuses: How much does teaching count in the tenure process here? Can I sit in on a class in both general education and my child’s anticipated major? Can I visit the center for teaching and learning? How much of a role does that center play on campus?

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While on campus, I would ask faculty members in my child’s anticipated major questions such as: Do you feel the university supports teaching? How?

I would ask students (not our tour guide): Does it seem like the faculty here care about teaching? Have you experienced great teaching here and what was that like? Do you feel a sense of belonging in your courses?

I want my kids to attend a university that not only has a great reputation, but one that also lives up to it in the way the university educates its students.

Corbin M. Campbell is associate dean and an associate professor in American University’s School of Education.
Corbin M. Campbell is associate dean and an associate professor in American University’s School of Education.

Families invest significantly in universities and deserve the benefits for their students that come from high-quality teaching. Perhaps more important, if teaching excellence is not the norm, then higher education is not fulfilling its potential as an engine of learning for our democracy.

In the long term, universities, organizations that rank schools, and others should work to make teaching a valued, core part of the mission.

After all, education should matter in higher education.

Corbin M. Campbell is associate dean and an associate professor in American University’s School of Education. She is the author of "Great College Teaching: Where It Happens and How to Foster It Everywhere."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Using college rankings to pick a school? Here's why that's a problem