Do Elite Colleges Really Offer Better Courses? Probably Yes, in Some Ways

Is it actually worth it, in terms of quality classroom learning, to land a place at an elite college or university? This is a question that many families with highly-talented students ask themselves. If their answer is yes, the result is likely to be a concerted, frenzied effort to mold the students in a way that gives them at least a modest chance of admission to such schools. (Of course, for better or worse, the question is often framed as “Is it worth it, in terms of career success, to land a place…”).

Regarding the differences in the quality of classes among all levels of institutions, new research provides some insights. The researchers lean toward minimizing the relationship between academic prestige and quality of instruction–but it appears that some of their own research suggests just the opposite.

In an article titled Are Elite College Courses Better?, Doug Lederman, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, provides an excellent, mostly neutral summary of the recent research that suggests course quality in a relatively broad range of institutions does not vary as much as the prestige of a given school might suggest.

“Researchers at Teachers College of Columbia University and at Yeshiva University… believe they are developing a legitimate way to compare the educational quality of courses across institutions,” Lederman writes, “and their initial analysis, they say, ‘raises questions about the value of higher-prestige institutions in terms of their teaching quality.'”

The researchers suggest that the drive to enhance prestige based on rankings and selectivity have led to “signaling”–branding, perceptions–that are increasingly divorced from the actual quality of classroom instruction. The laudable aim of the researchers is to turn the conversation away from college rankings and the metrics that drive them, and toward measurements of effective, challenging instruction.

Trained faculty observers visited nine colleges and 600 classes. Three of the nine had high prestige; two had minimum prestige; and four had low prestige. The schools were both public and private, with differing research and teaching emphases. We should note that there was no list of which schools were in each category, so we do not know exactly how the researchers defined “elite.” It appears likely, however, that many leading public research universities would be considered elite.

“Teaching quality was defined as instruction that displayed the instructor’s subject matter knowledge, drew out students’ prior knowledge and prodded students to wrestle with new ideas, while academic rigor was judged on the ‘cognitive complexity’ and the ‘level of standards and expectations’ of the course work,” Lederman writes.

“But 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.”

First, we note that highly-qualified honors students at almost all colleges, including many less prestigious public universities, are far more likely to encounter more “cognitive complexity” in their honors courses. Whether this results from having more depth or breadth in actual assignments, from taking harder courses early on, or from engaging in more challenging interactions with similarly smart students and the best faculty, the learning experience in honors embraces complexity.

We also have to agree with one of the longest and most thoughtful comments posted on Lederman’s article, by one “catorenasci”:

“Well, is [more cognitive complexity] a surprise to anyone? After all…on average the students at elite colleges and universities (private or public) have demonstrated higher cognitive ability than the students at less prestigious colleges and universities. Which means that the faculty can teach at a level of greater cognitive complexity without losing (many) students.”

The full comment from “catorenasci” also seems to be on the mark when it comes to improved instruction in all other measured areas on the part of colleges with less prestige, regardless of honors affiliation.

“As for the level of ‘teaching quality’ based on faculty knowledge, given the job market today, it should hardly be surprising that it has equaled out since there are many top quality candidates for even less prestigious positions and overall, I would suspect that the ‘quality’ of the PhD’s of faculty at less elite schools is much closer to that of elite schools than it was during the ’50s and ’60s when higher education was expanding rapidly and jobs were plentiful.

“The transformational aspect should not be surprising either: assuming faculty are competent and dedicated, with less able students they will work harder to draw out what they know and build on it. And, it will be more likely that students will experience significant growth as the faculty do this.”

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