The top schools for student engagement are probably not the schools you expected

List looks very different than the overall ranking of top institutions

The colleges and universities that are succeeding at student engagement are not the institutions that typically top college rankings, Doug Belkin writes for the Wall Street Journal.

The Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education (THE) recently ranked colleges based on four factors: student outcomes, institutional resources, learning environment, and student engagement.

The publications created five lists: one for each factor, and one overall ranking based on a weighted total of each institution's score across all four categories. The rankings were derived from questions asked of 100,000 students, with a minimum of 50 students currently attending each school.

For the engagement score, the publications asked respondents questions focused on:

  • How challenging classes are;
  • Whether classes foster critical thinking;
  • Whether classes prompt students to make connections to the real world;
  • How much interaction students have with faculty and peers; and
  • How likely a student is to recommend his or her school to a friend.

Looking at the answers to these questions alongside how many subjects and degree programs each school offers, the Wall Street Journal and THE compiled its list of institutions with the best student engagement.

Belkin writes that the engagement ranking looked quite different than the overall ranking. He cites the following as standout differences:

  • Princeton University ranked No. 8 on the overall ranking but tied for No. 632 in engagement;
  • Cedarville University tied for No. 372 on the overall ranking but ranked No. 4 in engagement; and
  • Michigan State University ranked No. 62 overall but tied for No. 6 in engagement.

Belkin notes that the only institution to score in the top 10 on the overall ranking—and place among the top 25 in engagement—was the University of Pennsylvania.

Religious schools dominated the engagement list, taking the top five spots.

Bob Durkee, vice president and secretary of Princeton, says the prestigious institution's placement on the engagement list is "a puzzle."

Harvard's dean expressed similar concern, and says he is working to improve communication with students, which he plans to do in part by making messages "scannable and easily digestible."

Schools that earned high marks for engagement credited a strong sense of identity and culture on campus.

Reconnect with disengaged students

"[Students have] developed these habits of helping other people, of reaching out to other people," says Susan Rugh, the dean of undergraduate education at Brigham Young University (BYU), where the majority of students participate in a two-year mission to impoverished areas for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU tied for No. 2 on the engagement list with Texas Christian University.

Cedarville's president, Thomas White, also credits the institution's culture. "There's a real sense of mission here," he says.

The top-ranked colleges and universities for student engagement are:

1. Dordt College

2. Brigham Young University (tie)

2. Texas Christian University (tie)

4. Cedarville University

5. Baylor University

6. Auburn University (tie)

6. Bowling Green State University (tie)

6. Bradley University (tie)

6. University of Central Oklahoma (tie)

6. Miami University (tie)

6.  Michigan State University (tie)

6. Swarthmore College (tie)

(Belkin, Wall Street Journal, 9/27; Korn, Wall Street Journal, 9/27).

The first step to engaging students is understanding them. Learn more in this field guide to the student mindset


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